December 27, 2017

Mental Health in Fiction and Why it Matters

If you or a loved one need someone to talk to, check out

In my article 5 Things You Need to Know About Writing Multi-ethnic and Bi-racial Characters,  I discussed the importance of diversity and representation in fiction. Lately, I've been itching to write an updated version concerning the representation of mental health in books, television, and the media. While we've made massive strides in Mental Health Awareness in recent years, the American culture is still very much lacking in sensitivity on the subject. 

Not long ago, I posted a chapter of my latest novel draft for critique (which basically means swapping opinions and tips with one another). To put the whole thing into context, the main character in my book is in prison for murder. One of the people critiquing my story messaged me with the suggestion that I should make him "crazier" because that would explain to the audience why he was a criminal. This is so wrong on so many levels. Having a villain's motives be "she's crazy" is not only really bad writing, it's an incredibly harmful worldview which equates morality with being Neurotypical. I will continue to write characters with Anxiety and Depression, but I refuse to sensationalize mental illness and misrepresent both the illness and the people who have it. I highly encourage others to do the same.

I'd like to take a moment to commend 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher and The Pact by Jodi Picoult for doing just this. In both books, teenage suicide plays a prominent role in the plot, without either glorifying or exploiting the situation to create controversy. Both show mentally unstable young women who do have other options but choose to take their own lives for a combination of complex reasons including depression and as a way of seeking a short-sighted solution to a potentially long-term problem. Perhaps most importantly, the books both show how much damage is left behind because of the character's choices. That, in my opinion, is the best way to handle such a difficult subject. With compassion. Pure sympathy and compassion for the victim and the family alike. 

Mental health is not something to be embarrassed about. Whether its suicidal thoughts or panic attacks, we all know somebody that struggles. We must work together as a society to break down the stigmas with realistic representations of mental health in fiction—most importantly, we must do it without exploiting the very people we choose to represent. It is our responsibility as basic human beings to not only aware but also compassionate about it.  

I'm always on the lookout for more books to read so if you have a recommendation, leave it in the comments section below. Don't forget to subscribe to my newsletter for more information about new releases and giveaways. Also, follow me on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook

December 8, 2017

3 Netflix Shows For Your Weekend TV Binge

Whether you're cooped up inside because of the blazing fires and poor air quality, or chilly winter weather, it's nice to set aside some personal time to take it slow and spend some time curled up with a blanket and your remote. If you're looking for something to watch, try one of these and get your Netflix and Chill on.   

Stranger Things 

I love shows and movies in a historical setting so for me this recommendation is a no-brainer. In a small town in the 1980's, a group of outcast friends grapples with the disappearance of their bestie, Will Byers, and supernatural horror of epic proportions. I originally gave it a pass because it looked cheesy, but my partner convinced me to give it a try and I was instantly hooked. The first season relies on a few eye-roll worthy teen tropes (perhaps more accurately, throwbacks to 80's coming of age film). The second season shifts things around, giving us more unique character development and arcs. Suspenseful, but not too dark for several back to back episodes... It's hard for me to imagine what the target audience is as it seems to have a little something for everyone. If you haven't given it a try yet, you're missing out.  


This show is the brilliant love child of House of Cards, Bourne Identity, and La Reina Del Sur. It often feels more like American film than the average telenovela, which is really neat to see if you love drama and are tired of bad acting. If you watch international television, you probably recognize the esteemed Kate del Castillo for her hit roles in Latin television, otherwise, you may recognize her as the voice of La Muerte in The Book of Life, or for her appearances in CW's Jane the Virgin. Kate is spectacular as the First Lady of Mexico who is on the run after she is framed for her husband's murder. Just a fair warning, it definitely deserves the Mature rating. There's graphic sexual content (both straight and LGBTQ) and (of course) loads of violence and language. The show is in Spanish (which is how I recommend you watch it), but if you're not bilingual or you hate subtitles there is an English dubbing available as well.

Zumbo's Just Desserts 

This may seem like a strange recommendation, but I absolutely LOVE binging cooking shows. Zumbo's Just Desserts was a pleasant little gem and I loved every second of it. Unlike American cooking shows, most of the participants are ordinary people (not pretentious professionally trained chefs) attempting to create extraordinary dishes. As the name suggests, the entire show revolves around desserts.  If you plan on watching this with children, keep in mind that it is rated Mature (for language) - there were a few F-bombs and some minor coarse language throughout. My sisters and I watched the whole series in about a week, each rooting for our favorite Aussie. It's a fun show that embraces the spirit of competition without glorifying a cut-throat or hateful spirit that so many of our competition shows in the US are guilty of.  

What are your Netflix recommendations? 

October 11, 2017

25 Best WWII Books for Middle Grade and Teenage Readers

Check out these 25 amazing books about WWII which cover everything from the Holocaust in Nazi Germany to the Japanese internment camps in the US. Read through to the end for information about my new release! 

Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz (based on the true story of Ruth and Jack Gruener)

Ten concentration camps.Ten different places where you are starved, tortured, and worked mercilessly. It's something no one could imagine surviving. But it is what Yanek Gruener has to face.

As a Jewish boy in 1930's Poland, Yanek is at the mercy of the Nazis who have taken over. Everything he has, and everyone he loves, have been snatched brutally from him. And then Yanek himself is taken prisoner-- his arm tattooed with the words PRISONER B-3087.

He is forced from one nightmarish concentration camp to another, as World War II rages all around him. He encounters evil he could have never imagined, but also sees surprising glimpses of hope amid the horror. He just barely escapes death, only to confront it again seconds later. Can Yanek make it through the terror without losing his hope, his will -- and, most of all, his sense of who he really is inside? Based on an astonishing true story.

Playing with Matches by Lee Strauss 

Heinz Schultz's word could send a man to prison. Though only a youth of fifteen, he was strong, tall, and blond. The boys in his Deutsches Jungvolk unit esteemed him and feared him. And they wanted to be just like him... A dedicated member of Hitler Youth, Emil was loyal to the Fuehrer before family, a champion for the cause and a fan of the famous Luftwaffe Airforce. Emil's friends Moritz and Johann discover a shortwave radio and everything changes. Now they listen to the forbidden BBC broadcast of news reports that tell both sides. Now they know the truth.

The boys along with Johann's sister Katharina, band together to write out the reports and covertly distribute flyers through their city. It's an act of high treason that could have them arrested-- or worse. As the war progresses, so does Emil's affection for Katharina. He'd do anything to have a normal life and to stay in Passau by her side. But when Germany's losses become immense, even their greatest resistance can't prevent the boys from being sent to the Eastern Front.

The Munich Girl by Phyllis Edgerly Ring 

Anna Dalhberg grew up eating dinner under her father's war-trophy portrait of Eva Braun. Fifty years after the war, she discovers what he never did—that her mother and Hitler’s mistress were friends. The secret surfaces with a mysterious monogrammed handkerchief, and a man, Hannes Ritter, whose Third Reich family history is entwined with Anna’s. 

Plunged into the world of the “ordinary” Munich girl who was her mother’s confidante—and a tyrant’s lover—Anna finds her every belief about right and wrong challenged. With Hannes’s help, she retraces the path of two women who met as teenagers, shared a friendship that spanned the years that Eva Braun was Hitler’s mistress, yet never knew that the men they loved had opposing ambitions.

Eva’s story reveals that she never joined the Nazi party, had Jewish friends, and was credited at the Nuremberg Trials with saving 35,000 Allied lives. As Anna's journey leads back through the treacherous years in wartime Germany, it uncovers long-buried secrets and unknown reaches of her heart to reveal the enduring power of love in the legacies that always outlast war.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys 

World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, many with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer to safety.

Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people—adults and children alike—aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.

Surviving the Fatherland by Annette Oppenlander 

When her father goes off to war, seven-year-old Lilly is left with an unkind mother who favors her brother and chooses to ignore the lecherous pedophile next door. A few blocks away, twelve-year-old Günter also loses his father to the draft and quickly takes charge of supplementing his family's ever-dwindling rations by any means necessary.

As the war escalates and bombs begin to rain, Lilly and Günter's lives spiral out of control. Every day is a fight for survival. On a quest for firewood, Lilly encounters a dying soldier and steals her father's last suit to help the man escape. Barely sixteen, Günter ignores his draft call and embarks as a fugitive on a harrowing 47-day ordeal--always just one step away from execution.

When at last the war ends, Günter grapples with his brother's severe PTSD and the fact that none of his classmates survived. Welcoming denazification, Lilly takes a desperate step to rid herself once and for all of her disgusting neighbor's grip. When Lilly and Günter meet in 1949, their love affair is like any other. Or so it seems. But old wounds and secrets have a way of rising to the surface once more.

Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy 

In 1945 the war ended. The Germans surrendered, and the
ghetto was liberated. Out of over a quarter of a million people, about 800 walked out of the ghetto. Of those who survived, only twelve were children. I was one of the twelve." For more than fifty years after the war, Syvia, like many Holocaust survivors, did not talk about her experiences in the Lodz ghetto in Poland. She buried her past in order to move forward. But finally she decided it was time to share her story, and so she told it to her niece, who has re-told it here using free verse inspired by her aunt. This is the true story of Syvia Perlmutter—a story of courage, heartbreak, and finally survival despite the terrible circumstances in which she grew

The Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

Amsterdam, 1943. Hanneke spends her days procuring and delivering sought-after black market goods to paying customers, her nights hiding the true nature of her work from her concerned parents, and every waking moment mourning her boyfriend, who was killed on the Dutch front lines when the Germans invaded. She likes to think of her illegal work as a small act of rebellion.

On a routine delivery, a client asks Hanneke for help. Expecting to hear that Mrs. Janssen wants meat or kerosene, Hanneke is shocked by the older woman's frantic plea to find a person-a Jewish teenager Mrs. Janssen had been hiding, who has vanished without a trace from a secret room. Hanneke initially wants nothing to do with such dangerous work, but is ultimately drawn into a web of mysteries and stunning revelations that lead her into the heart of the resistance, open her eyes to the horrors of the Nazi war machine, and compel her to take desperate action.

My Mother's Ring: A Holocaust Historical Novel by Dana Fitzwater Cornell 

The Holocaust didn't really end in 1945. Not for everyone. Even after the war, survivors' lives were influenced by their terrifying experiences. Some of them were never able to retell their stories--for others, it took decades.

War Girl Ursula by Marion Kummerow 

Berlin 1943: Compassion is a crime. A prisoner escapes. A guard looks the other way. Why does Ursula Hermann risk her life and brave the Gestapo to save a man she barely knows? 

Ursula has always lived the law, never broken the rules in her life. That is until the day she finds escapee British airman Tom Westlake and all the right she’s worked so hard to maintain goes wrong... He runs. And she does nothing to stop him. Torn with guilt about what she did, Ursula battles with her decision when suddenly Tom returns, injured and pleading for her help.This is her opportunity to make things right.
But shadows from the past tug at her heart, convincing her to risk everything, including her life, in order to protect a man from the nation her country is fighting. As they brave the perils and dangers of the ever-present Gestapo, will Ursula find a way to keep Tom safe? Or will being on the opposite sides of the war ultimately cost both of them their lives

Unravelled by Anna Scanlon 

Aliz and her twin sister, Hajna, are enjoying their playful, carefree and comfortable life with their parents in Szeged, Hungary just before the Nazis invade. Seemingly overnight, their lives change drastically as they are transported to the ghetto on the outskirts of the city and then to Auschwitz to be used in Mengele's deadly twin experiments. After several months of brutal torture, Aliz is liberated to find that she is the only survivor in her family. At not even 11 years old, Aliz must make the journey to San Francisco alone, an entire world away from everything she's known, in order to live with her only known relatives whom she has never met-- a depressed aunt and teenage cousin who is more than ready to escape her mother's melancholy. Told through the eyes of both Aliz and her cousin Isabelle, Unravelled tells a powerful story of survival, hope, family and the lives war and genocide haunt long after liberation. It is a truly moving piece of historical fiction, based heavily on historical facts.

Among the Reeds by Tammy Bottner 

When her son was born, Tammy Bottner experienced flashbacks of being hunted by the Nazis. The strange thing is, these experiences didn’t happen to her. They happened to her grandmother decades earlier and thousands of miles away.

Back in Belgium, Grandma Melly made unthinkable choices in order to save her family during WWII, including sending her two-year-old son, Bottner’s father, into hiding in a lonely Belgian convent. Did the trauma that Tammy Bottner’s predecessors experience affect their DNA? Did she inherit the “memories” of the war-time trauma in her very genes?

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman 

Gretchen Müller grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her uncle Dolf—who has kept her family cherished and protected from that side of society ever since her father sacrificed his life for Dolf's years ago. Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler. And Gretchen follows his every command. 

When she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen, who claims that her father was actually murdered by an unknown comrade, Gretchen doesn't know what to believe. She soon discovers that beyond her sheltered view lies a world full of shadowy secrets and disturbing violence.

As Gretchen's investigations lead her to question the motives and loyalties of her dearest friends and her closest family, she must determine her own allegiances—even if her choices could get her and Daniel killed. 

When Pierrot becomes an orphan, he must leave his home in Paris for a new life with his aunt Beatrix, a servant in a wealthy Austrian household. But this is no ordinary time, for it is 1935 and the Second World War is fast approaching; and this is no ordinary house, for this is the Berghof, the home of Adolf Hitler.

Book Thief by Markus Zusak

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

Survivor's Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz by Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat  

In 1945, in a now-famous piece of World War II archival footage, four-year-old Michael Bornstein was filmed by Soviet soldiers as he was carried out of Auschwitz in his grandmother’s arms. Survivors Club tells the unforgettable story of how a father’s courageous wit, a mother’s fierce love, and one perfectly timed illness saved his life, and how others in his family from Zarki, Poland, dodged death at the hands of the Nazis time and again with incredible deftness. Working from his own recollections as well as extensive interviews with relatives and survivors who knew the family, Michael relates his inspirational Holocaust survival story with the help of his daughter, Debbie Bornstein Holinstat. Shocking, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting, this narrative nonfiction offers an indelible depiction of what happened to one Polish village in the wake of the German invasion in 1939.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Berlin, 1942: When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move to a new house far, far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people in the distance.

But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different from his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank 

Anne Frank and her family, fleeing the horrors of Nazi occupation forces, hid in the back of an Amsterdam office building for two years. This is Anne's record of that time. She was thirteen when the family went into the "Secret Annex," and in these pages, she grows to be a young woman and proves to be an insightful observer of human nature as well. A timeless story discovered by each new generation, The Diary of a Young Girl stands without peer. For young readers and adults, it continues to bring to life this young woman, who for a time survived the worst horrors the modern world had seen -- and who remained triumphantly and heartbreakingly human throughout her ordeal.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok 

It’s the spring of 1944 and fifteen-year-olds Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders have lived five blocks apart all their lives. But they’ve never met, not until the day an accident during a softball game sparks an unlikely friendship. Soon these two boys—one expected to become a Hasidic rebbe, the other at ease with secular America—are drawn into one another’s worlds despite one father’s strong opposition.

Set against the backdrop of WWII and the creation of the state of Israel, The Chosen is a poignant novel about transformation and tradition, growing up and growing wise, and finding yourself—even if that might mean leaving your community.


The Hidden Village: A Story of Survival by Imogen Matthews

 Wartime Holland. Who can you trust? Deep in the Veluwe woods lies a secret that frustrates the Germans. Convinced that Jews are hiding close by they can find no proof. The secret is Berkenhout, a purpose-built village of huts sheltering dozens of persecuted people. Young tearaway Jan roams the woods looking for adventure and fallen pilots. His dream comes true when he stumbles across an American airman, Donald C. McDonald. But keeping him hidden sets off a disastrous chain of events.

Sofie, a Jewish Dutch girl, struggles to adapt to living in Berkenhout, away from her family and friends. As weeks turn to months, she’s worried they’ll abandon her altogether. Henk Hauer, head woodman, is in charge of building the underground huts and ensuring the Berkenhout inhabitants stay safe. But many grow suspicious of his liaisons with the Germans. Is he passing on secret information that could endanger lives?
All it takes is one small fatal slip to change the course of all their lives forever.

Farewell to Manzanar by Jean Wakatsuki Houston 

During World War II a community called Manzanar was hastily created in the high mountain desert country of California, east of the Sierras. Its purpose was to house thousands of Japanese American internees. One of the first families to arrive was the Wakatsukis, who were ordered to leave their fishing business in Long Beach and take with them only the belongings they could carry. For Jeanne Wakatsuki, a seven-year-old child, Manzanar became a way of life in which she struggled and adapted, observed and grew. For her father, it was essentially the end of his life.

The Cay by Theodore Taylor

 Phillip is excited when the Germans invade the small island of Curaçao. War has always been a game to him, and he’s eager to glimpse it firsthand–until the freighter he and his mother are traveling to the United States on is torpedoed.
When Phillip comes to, he is on a small raft in the middle of the sea. Besides Stew Cat, his only companion is an old West Indian, Timothy. Phillip remembers his mother’s warning about black people: “They are different, and they live differently.” But by the time the castaways arrive on a small island, Phillip’s head injury has made him blind and dependent on Timothy.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

As the German troops begin their campaign to "relocate" all the Jews of Denmark, Annemarie Johansen’s family takes in Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, and conceals her as part of the family.

Through the eyes of ten-year-old Annemarie, we watch as the Danish Resistance smuggles almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark, nearly seven thousand people, across the sea to Sweden. The heroism of an entire nation reminds us that there was pride and human decency in the world even during a time of terror and war.


The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum 

This acclaimed story of World War II is rich in suspense, characterization, plot and spiritual truth. Every element of occupied Holland is united in a story of courage and hope: a hidden Jewish child, an underdiver, a downed RAF pilot, an imaginative, daring underground hero, and the small things of family life which surprisingly carry on in the midst of oppression. The Verhagen family, who live in the old windmill called the Winged Watchman, are a memorable set of individuals whose lives powerfully demonstrate the resilience of those who suffer but do not lose faith.

The Winter Horses by Philip Ker 

It will soon be another cold winter in the Ukraine. But it's 1941, and things are different this year. Max, the devoted caretaker of an animal preserve, must learn to live with the Nazis who have overtaken this precious land. He must also learn to keep secrets—for there is a girl, Kalinka, who is hiding in the park.
Kalinka has lost her home, her family, her belongings—everything but her life. Still, she has gained one small, precious gift: a relationship with the rare wild and wily Przewalski's horses that wander the preserve. Aside from Max, these endangered animals are her only friends—until a Nazi campaign of extermination nearly wipes them out for good.
Now Kalinka must set out on a treacherous journey across the frozen forest to save the only two surviving horses—and herself.

Four Perfect Pebbles by Lila Perl and Marion Blumenthal Lazan

Marion Blumenthal Lazan’s unforgettable and acclaimed memoir recalls the devastating years that shaped her childhood. Following Hitler’s rise to power, the Blumenthal family—father, mother, Marion, and her brother, Albert—were trapped in Nazi Germany. They managed eventually to get to Holland, but soon thereafter it was occupied by the Nazis. For the next six and a half years the Blumenthals were forced to live in refugee, transit, and prison camps, including Westerbork in Holland and Bergen-Belsen in Germany, before finally making it to the United States. Their story is one of horror and hardship, but it is also a story of courage, hope, and the will to survive.

The Secrets I Carry (This one is my book!)

Secrets are difficult for any eleven-year-old child to keep. But in Nazi Germany, Gertrude’s family secret is a matter of life and death. When she and her best friend stumble upon something unusual in the woods, their accidental involvement could mean danger for them both. Must she reveal one secret to keep another? Or is it one more secret for this young woman to carry?

Emotionally raw, "The Secrets I Carry" is a heartfelt coming of age story about loyalty, compassion, and innocence amidst the political turmoil of WWII.

July 16, 2017


That's right! I have a new short story out. It's available on Horror Tree.

I started writing it about a year ago and after many edits and submissions, I'm proud to say my story now has a home.

My Name is Jacob Hoffman

With daylight dulled by thick pewter clouds, the city is unusually bleak this afternoon. It’ll be dark soon. Just my luck.
Why the hell did I agree to cover Mavis' shift at the bar? I should’ve known better than to say yes. I should be inside by now, locked up safe and sound.

July 7, 2017

5 Characters We Need More of

1. The Multi-ethnic or Biracial character.

I went into greater depth in my previous post about this, but it's still something that makes it to the top of my list. Many writers love to claim they embrace diversity, but it comes down to it, they end up relying on the same handful of stereotypical token minorities (the black thug, the nerdy Asian, Latino housekeeper/landscaper). That isn't diversity. It's just insulting.

The modern world has broken down so many racial and ethnic barriers and it's time for us to start using that in our writing. Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes and, as I explain in my previous article, this just happens to be a group of people that are either exploited or left out entirely. This needs to change.

2.The Elderly

Sure, if we all think long and hard about it, we can come up with some examples of elderly characters narrating the tales of their youth, but that isn't exactly helpful. When you get a story set up like that (while it can work), it often suggests to the reader that there is nothing of importance going on in the life of the older character after they have aged. Which is to say, the most interesting and valuable thing about them is something that has already happened. I want to see more elderly characters as the MC's. I want to see the drama between two old ladies cheating at Bingo, the mundane and the exciting, the adventures and the daily life. It doesn't matter what, I want to see more Senior citizens as the main characters.  

3. Mental Illness 

We really need to break away from lazy writing that inserts "crazy" character here or there so we don't have to deal with giving them an actual reason to kill. To sensationalize mental illness is not only harmful to non-neurotypical people, it perpetuates misconceptions about mental health in general which then contributes to shame and reluctance to seek treatment. It's just bad all around. It's an evil snowball which gets out of hand and it all begins with "he committed that crime because he's crazy". Please don't do that. We need more stories about characters with mental illnesses that aren't exploited for the sake of a flashy punchline.

 4. Disabilities and Impairments

This includes characters over a wide range of options which includes everything from suffering with a hard to pronounce disease, to being hard of hearing, to using a wheelchair, to wearing glasses. Yes. I said wearing glasses. This might sound silly, but what I really want to see is more characters with glasses (who aren't portrayed as nerds). Reality check: How many people do you know with diabetes? How many characters can you think of who have diabetes? It's a small detail for any writer to include and seriously, its not that hard. This is true diversity.

5. The Caring Mother

In far too many books and movies, family is portrayed as either distant or dead. And while that may be the case for many, it isn't a universal experience, despite lazy writers' reliance on it. Disney is well known for killing mothers and, allegedly, this allows the main characters to experience more freedom to be active agents in the story ... but really ... is it so much to ask for some better representation of a good, emotionally healthy family? Sure, every family has their quirks (and dysfunctions), but I still think this is something many genres could do a much better job with. It doesn't necessarily have to be biological mothers, but I think we do a great disservice to the literary world if we only ever portray single parent households. We need to keep things interesting so we don't become repetitive or, heaven forbid, cliche and irrelevant.

What types of characters would you like to see more of?

June 3, 2017

Book Review: Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

I started reading Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain a few months ago. Though I found it to be very entertaining, I put it down for one reason or another, and eventually it was due back at the library.

I decided to check it out again, and this time I simply couldn't put it down. The story takes place in Depression Era LA. It follows FMC Mildred Pierce amidst her financial and marital troubles. After getting fed up with her husband's unemployment and extramarital shenanigans, Mildred kicks him out of the house. With the bills coming in, she soon realizes she has to step up and find work to put food on the table and keep the roof over their heads. She swallows her pride and becomes a waitress (much to the haughty disapproval of her spoiled daughter Veda).

Being the ambitious woman she is, she doesn't stop there. Her side business (baking pies) begins to take off after she convinces her new boss to buy and sell her pies instead of wasting his money on his old subpar vendor. Soon, she can't shake the idea that she should open her own restaurant. But it doesn't end there. She's driven and she'll stop at nothing, whatever it takes to provide for her family.

Mildred is a strong independent female character (before that was a thing).Typically women in this era (and genre) played one of two roles. Cain breaks away from that and presents Mildred, despite her many flaws, as what we might call a "modern woman" (for better or worse).

She's not a great mother (seriously, Veda is a god-awful child that deserves more than the occasional slap to the face she gets), but Mildred typically makes an effort. After all, she's a working mother with secret lover(s), and drama with her ex so her priorities have shifted.

I was struck by just how believable of a character Mildred was (all things considered). We often see female novelists write from a male POV, but rarely do we see that sort of gender swap go in the other direction, much less in 1941. It can be a bit like a soap opera at times, which is possibly why it was made into the iconic Joan Crawford film in the 40's. The story itself takes a slightly softer approach to the typical high testosterone hard-boiled style (still plenty of implied sex, booze, & cursing). Some of the hard-boiled stuff out there, while entertaining, can be overwhelmingly objectifying and dismissive of women (not to mention, shockingly racist). Cain carves out that middle road keeping in the best aspects of the genre and leaving out the worst.

Pros: It has a wonderful literary style, nuanced characters, timeless classic, page turner, the female MC makes for a wonderful little step outside of the usual Hard-boiled detective.

Cons: It could have been a bit cleaner in that it had a similar appeal as reality television. I was unable to relate to any of the characters, but still wanted to stand on the sideline and get swept up in their personal drama.

There are many books that I'll never pick up again, but this definitely isn't one of them. After reading a copy from the library, this has made it to the top of my need to own a personal copy list. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone so long as they're neither easily scandalized nor expecting a redemption story.

If you get a chance to read it, come back and let me know what you think!

For more book reviews, follow me on Goodreads and check out some of my other book reviews. As always, if you haven't subscribed yet, why the heck not? You can go ahead and do it in the right bar above.    

March 9, 2017

How to Design Your Own Book Cover FOR FREE

I made the cover above in about an hour (maybe less).  It's properly formatted and proportioned for a 6' x 9' CreateSpace cover (for a roughly 250 page book).

Before you start making your own cover, make sure you know the dimensions that your printing services require. The cover above is entirely make believe, but I made it as an example of what your end product should look like (if you don't mind a minimalist cover).

I began by visiting CreateSpace and downloading their template for a book which seemed like a reasonable size for commercial fiction. Don't worry. You don't need a template to do this, but it did make everything a heck of a lot easier. If you're using a template you'll want that to be your background image (or to at least use the same pixel size and insert it as a layer for reference). If you're not using a pre-made template, be sure to measure carefully and don't forget to leave some margins.

I don't have Photoshop so I use Pixlr  but you could also use something like Gimp or SumoPaint  if you prefer. While SumoPaint offers more features than Pixlr, I can never seem to get it to work for me without crashing mid-project.

I put the CreateSpace template as the background image and built a solid black Layer 1 over it (my true background). Make sure that your background is a separate layer from the template so that you can refer back to it throughout the process.

You'll probably want to start with adding an image (Layer 2) and blending it or erasing around the edges with a large, soft circular brush. I was going for a minimalist approach so I only added an image to the front but if you prefer, you can find one that wraps all the way around. You can pay modest fees and royalties for photos or (if you're thrifty and patient) you can search through Free Stock Images (or browse Deviant Art and ask the artists' permission for commercial use. Please be responsible and make sure they have proper release forms from anyone featured in the image). Or ... if you or a friend have a high end camera, feel free to use your own images. They'll be original and you won't need to worry about copyright issues (or duplicate covers).

Another quick note about the image and placement that I used - I purposely chose this image because I felt that it would draw attention to our "Dramatic Title". Studies have proven time and time again that when you see somebody, it's a natural reaction to follow their line of sight. Thus, if you choose an image with a person's face (or at least their eyes) I would recommend that they are either facing in a direction that interacts with the overall design (in this case looking up at the title) or an image that looks directly at the viewer (forcing them to make eye contact with the product). One of the only exceptions I can think of for this would be perhaps where you have multiple people in the image (hopefully interacting with one another). This is more characteristic of books in the Romance and Erotica genres.

For Layer 3 I added a soft charcoal gradient that fades in diagonally from the upper right hand corner towards the man's face. It might be difficult to see on the image above, but at full size the effect is more apparent. Take note of the perspective and direction of the lights and keep it consistent throughout the cover. Adding a soft texture (in this case it probably wouldn't be visible) or a soft gradient is a tiny, super easy step that tricks the eye into seeing it as a single image, rather than a face randomly planted on top of a black background.

Click on Layer 1 and adjust the transparency until you can see your template underneath. Place a white shape over the ISBN box. (This is Layer 4.) It doesn't need to end up on the end product but this will keep you from entering that space with the rest of the text on the back.

If you have an "About the Author" section with a high quality, professional looking photo of yourself or a very small emblem to place on the spine, go ahead and add them now. (Potentially Layer 5 - 6)

If you're using Pixlr, you'll probably find that the font sizes are adequate for use on the back of the cover, but they're nowhere near large enough for the front. I believe the only text not added on Pixlr was the title and author name on both the front and the spine. Though I did it here, I would hesitate before recommending this since it's difficult to ensure that the same fonts will be available on different programs (and unless you're using black and white, finding the same color is nearly impossible as well).

Be pragmatic. Save it as a layered file then flatten your image (don't forget to readjust Layer 1's transparency) and save it as either JPEG or PNG [if you're still not sure which one is better for your project see here]. Like I said, I really don't like using Pixlr for text. You can try using ipiccy but my personal favorite is still Canva. You're limited in options but the accessibility of the site is outstanding. It might not work if you want more stylish or personalized text, but I always prefer to stick with more standard text anyway (though they do have quite a bit to choose from).

I'd love to see the covers you come up with. Let me know how everything works for you below.   

March 1, 2017

Developing Deeper Characters: The Best Friend / Confidante

I hate to admit it, but as much as I love a lone-wolf MC, something spectacular happens when you introduce a close friend or confidante into the mix. Suddenly, there's another voice that can almost act as the conscience or alter ego of the MC.

The presence of a friend allows the reader to see a more vulnerable (or even a braver) side to the MC. As long as they're moderately likable, they can be blunt, tacky, or forward in a way that the MC rarely can. So if writing SIFs ("strong independent female" characters) aren't your thing, or if you're looking to round out your character and give them more complexity, the Best Friend/Confidante may be just the thing. Friends can give your character much needed confidence, or a kick in the pants (whichever they need more at that moment).

A good example of why friends in fiction work well can be found in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. The character's personalities balance one another and it's probably not just to reach a diversity quota. A sensual, outgoing friend can be balanced by her timid, commitment-phobic pal (and vice-versa) until each girl is left as the best version of herself. If you ask me, it just works.

In the world of creative fiction, we're often told that the MC needs to make the vast majority of conscious decisions in order to move the plot forward. While this is often the case, not every story calls for that. Not every character needs to be a "man of action". In fact, as a Phlegmatic personality myself, I find it the notion that every character ought to behave this way to just be silly. But, if the MC isn't moving the plot forward, who is? The best friend.

Don't believe me? Go watch Finding Nemo and pay close attention to the relationship between Dory and Marlin (Nemo's father). While Marlin does eventually learn to be a more active character, it is often Dory that pushes him to venture outside of his comfort zone and try new things. She gets the plot rolling and pushes him forward until he's ready to take the torch and cross the finish line.

Obviously, film is going to function a bit differently from the written word, but the concept still applies. In an interview with Sam Jones, Judy Greer explains this beautifully. Check it out.

For more on character development, check out Developing Deeper Characters: Backstory and Fear.
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February 20, 2017

Reading Recommendations: 4 Latino Writers Everyone Should Know

Poetry: Pablo Neruda - translated in English

No list could possibly be complete without including this remarkable Chilean writer. His poetry speaks for itself. He has a collection of a hundred love poems which are wonderful. In addition to his talented poetry, he's also well known for his political activism. You can read more about that here.

Short Story: A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, probably needs no introduction. He's hailed as one of the great modern masters of Magical Realism, a genre closely tied to Latin American literature. He takes a more literary approach which feels like it was meant to be read slowly (at least, the English translations do). If you don't mind long sentences with lots of commas, you might like his style.

Vignettes: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

I'll admit, I didn't care for this book the first time I read it. It was assigned reading in high school, and I would have rather been reading basically anything but American Lit. It's not that I hated the book, or anything, I was able to relate to a few points, but for the unaccustomed, vignettes are weird. I recently decided to give it another chance and it left me utterly amazed. I see now what all the fuss was about. It's beautiful and brilliant in a way I could only hope to aspire to.

The chapters are delicious bite size pieces. Most are no more than three or four pages, which makes it perfect for either reading straight through or taking it all in over the course of a week or two.

Of every piece of Latino Literature I've ever read, this is the one that best captures the essence of what it means to grow up as a Latina. And it manages to do so without becoming overly political or whiny. Open, honest, and vulnerable. Can't recommend it enough.

Novel: Like Water for Chocolate by Lauara Esquivel

This Magical Realism novel is great in English, even better in Spanish. It centers around Tita, a Mexican woman whose ability to marry is complicated by tradition. Rather than spending his life away from her, the love of her life agrees to marry her sister. Tensions rise when he moves in under the same roof as Tita. She soon discovers that her cooking was magical, everything she felt while constructing the dish (depression, passion, contentment, etc.) would be felt by anyone who ate it.

The book is wonderfully emotional (though not over the top in a Telemundo sort of way). It's the first piece of Magical Realism I'd ever read, and before I reached the last page, I already knew it wouldn't be the last.

If you're bilingual, I highly recommend the Spanish version (there's a lyrical quality to that English can't match). If not, the English translation is still pretty great.