“The Challenge” by Tom Hoyle

After Ben’s best and only friend Will disappears, everyone suspects he’s been murdered. However, no one has found his killer. A year passes by, and Ben is left to grieve his friend alone. Everyone else has moved on, but Ben hasn’t forgotten Will and he isn’t eager to make any new friends. That is, until the twins show up.

Even though the twins are the new kids in town, everyone likes them immediately. And when the twins prevent Ben from being bullied, and allow him into their inner circle, Ben falls under their spell too. With the twins, Ben is finally accepted and when the twins let Ben into an online game, Ben is eager to compete. Even when the challenges become more dangerous than ever.

“The Challenge” is the perfect book for you if you like reading about creepy events in small towns and friendships that are based on coercion. That is to say, this book is a thriller with high stakes. Ben shifts into a character that makes some challenging decisions (get it? challenging decisions?) that will shape him forever. I definitely couldn’t put this book down.

The book leads you towards the ending the entire time, and even still the ending is not what I expected. The ending was unsettling and I’m not sure I fully understood it and agreed with it. However, it wasn’t a let down like some endings. Really made you think.

“Boy 23” by Jim Carrington

“Boy 23” is a strange dystopian sci fi thriller. The boy in question, Jesper has only known the four walls of My Place, a comfortable room with his pet squawk and a screen where he interacts with The Voice. He has never met another human being. He has never left My Place. This is the extent of Jesper’s experience.

Until one night, Jesper’s abducted and abandoned in a forest and forced to run for his life. The Voice claims that he’ll meet him somewhere far, far away. But can Jesper trust The Voice? Why was he kept in My Place? Who can he trust?

This book is a quick read. There’s a lot of interesting information about the setting and Jesper’s adaptation to the real world. There’s other points of view in the novel, however none of them were as strong as Jesper’s. I liked the science behind the story, as well as the unusual setting. However, I didn’t understand how all of the character’s viewpoints came together in the end.


How To Prepare For Nanowrimo

For those of you ready to plunge into Nanowrimo this year, I’ve provided some links to articles that will help you write your novel. Since churning out 50,000 words in a month is not for the faint of heart, it’s great to have some tips to add to your tool kit.

First, how to start? Starting a novel is one of the most daunting prospects of writing a novel itself. Not only does the page look especially blank at this stage, you can’t build from the last sentences from your last chapter. Instead, you have to create something from absolutely nothing and convince the reader that your story is one worth sticking around for. This is no small task.

However, don’t panic. You’re just writing a first draft. There’s no need to overthink things too much. You will come back and edit the beginning, perhaps more than any other part of your novel. Try writing something. It can always change later.

Here are some great articles on how to start your novel, in case you’re stuck on how to begin:

1) Writer’s Digest’s How to Start a Novel Right: 5 Great Tips

2) The Write Practice’s Three Ways to Start A Novel

3) Kim Graff’s Struggling Start: Problems and Solutions for Your First Chapter

3) Chuck Wendig’s 25 Things To Know About Writing The First Chapter

All of these posts provide suggestions on how to make a strong start to your novel. Some provide common problems with beginnings and suggest solutions.

“But wait a minute!” You might think. “First chapters! I don’t even know my story yet! This isn’t helpful at all!”

Well, this depends on your writing style. When you write are you a pantser or a plotter? That is do you write anything you want without planning by the seat of your pants, or do you plan everything out to the last letter? I prefer to pants my novel, since often through writing I get my best ideas. However, I’ve had to learn to plan out my plot somewhat otherwise I end up writing myself up the ying-yang and let me tell you it doesn’t end pretty. Now I do a pantsing-plotting hybrid that serves me well.

How you plan (or don’t plan) a novel is very much a personal choice. However, brainstorming and planning can help you learn about your novel better so that you are prepared once November begins to make your word count goals.

Here are some articles to help plan a novel:

1) Chuck Wendig’s highly comprehensive 25 Ways To Plot, Plan, and Prep Your Story

2) Dan Well’s 7-Point Plot Structure

3) Although I’ve never used this method personally, I’ve heard from others that they enjoy using the snowflake method.

4) Stuck for ideas? Check out my post on how to come up with an idea for a novel.

And last but not least, an article after my own pantsing heart that argues against planning:

1) NY Book Editors say Planning to Outline Your Novel? Don’t!

In the end, don’t get stuck in technicalities. Nanowrimo is for a quick first draft, editing comes later. Write frequently, write about what you care about, and write because you love writing and you’ll have written an awesome first draft. I guarantee it.

“The Bone Witch” by Rin Chupeco

This book had an epic fantasy feel where the world building is intense and distinctly different. Tea is a girl whose magical powers differ from the norms. Instead of being able to harness the elements to do her bidding, she can raise the dead. She discovers her powers when she raises her older brother from his grave. Despite the centre of this book being rather grisly – my husband took one look at the title and went “are you reading that isn’t it scary?” – this book is really pretty tame compared to what’s on the YA shelves these days. Even though death is present, Tea’s brother gets to come back as a shadow from his early demise.

Then, Tea is forced to move away from her family for her training under an older bone witch, where she learns how to become an Asha. Asha are some sort of witch and geisha hybrid and although how the women entertain the men besides clean music and dancing is never divulged, I began to wonder “Are they prostitutes?” Again, this wasn’t revealed and the book is very clean, but due to the gendered nature of the work I was unsure.

This book moves slowly and the description is dense and detailed. Usually this would be con for me, however I enjoyed living in this strange world for a few days. I inhale books, so it was nice to encounter one that took me more than a night to read. Since there are two narratives at once – an older, stranger, more sinister Tea and a younger, apprentice Tea it was interesting to wonder when the two narratives will converge. I found it hard to keep track of all the various kingdoms and cultures, however something about the book just works.

Perhaps it’s the idea of a heartglass, where people wear their hearts on a necklace with their emotions for all to see. Perhaps it was the world of the ashas and Tea starting her apprenticeship as a servant which reminded me of a newfangled “Spirited Away.” Perhaps it was the creepy nature of Tea’s powers which could bring skeletons to life from the earth. Perhaps it was the suggestion of romance with a prince. I’m a huge sucker for romances with princes.

Anyway, “The Bone Witch” is a highly original fantasy. I look forward to seeing how the series will conclude.

“The Cage” by Megan Shepherd

When Cora wakes up in an usual landscape with a group of teenagers – none of whom she’s ever met before – she is determined to solve the mystery. However, what she finds out she could’ve never anticipated. The teenagers are kept as test subjects in a human zoo. As for their captors… well… they aren’t exactly human.

This book has a lot going on and I’m not exaggerating when I say it is one of the most well-thought out sci fi YA novels I have ever read. There’s some pretty “Lord of the Flies” dynamics going on between the teens in captivity. Although everyone’s on the same page at first and wants to escape, various factions and alliances develop over time. I also really enjoyed the dialogues about ethics and purpose. What is the essence of humanity? How can you convince another being about your apparent intelligence and what rights you deserve if they are convinced otherwise?

Although the science in this book was somewhat fantastical at times, it was grounded in some pretty stable discussions about experimental conditions where the teens tried to figure out exactly what was going on. And the characters had substance. Cora has a pretty intriguing back story that isn’t divulged right away and is linked without her knowledge to one of the boys in “the cage.” She isn’t just some flat action hero advocating for justice.

The back of this book really advertises Cora’s romance with her captor and although this is a factor, this book really achieves so much more. I found the teenage interactions to be much more interesting than the so-called romance. This isn’t “Twilight” with an alien folks. This is a physiological discussion of exploiting living creatures as resources. Although there is a fair discussion about what makes humans tick, there is a clear parallel with how humans treat other living creatures on our own planet as well.

The one complaint I’d have is about the ending. Since this is the first book in a series, obviously not everything will be resolved. However, I would’ve liked something to be tied up, instead of being left with a collection of loose ends. Although I must admit, I’m happy to read the rest of the series to see what happens next.

“Caraval” by Stephanie Garber

Scarlett has always longed to attend Caraval, a far away week-long magical performance that occurs once a year. However, she and her sister live on a far away isle with a controlling and abusive father and Caraval remains an impossibility. Until the impossible finally happens.

The sisters receive an invitation in the mail. They manage to escape their home and travel to the island with the help of a sailor. However, as soon as they reach the show, Scarlett’s sister vanishes. It soon becomes to Scarlett that her sister’s disappearance is this year’s theme for the show. This performance gives the audience a choice: they either watch or participate in the show. For Scarlett the choice is obvious. She has to participate to help her sister.

It isn’t easy.

Scarlett has to find her sister in the chaos and magic of Caraval. She has to decide who to trust and what is fabrication and what is real. She has to question what she desires out of life and how to achieve it.

This book had many strengths, the strongest perhaps being Scarlett’s character development. The Scarlett at the beginning is drastically different than the Scarlett at the end of the novel. Her decisions during the plot change her at a pretty fundamental level and it was fascinating to watch her grow.

However, undoubtedly fantasy fans will be drawn to the world-building in “Caraval,” which is also excellent. Think about the unpredictable and wondrous atmosphere of a theme park and then add in a healthy dose of magic and mystery and then raise the stakes with the threat of losing someone you love. The descriptions in “Caraval” accost the senses with sound, with colour, with vibrancy. It’s a world that is both dangerous and intriguing.

Even though “Caraval” has a cast of relatively few characters, the interactions between the characters are well done. Scarlett’s love interest will satisfy the need for romance. And Scarlett’s bond with her sister, even though her sister remains missing for much of the book, is complex and real.

“Caraval” is a fun read with lots of cliff hangers. You won’t regret it.


How to Come Up With An Idea For A Novel

Coming up with an idea for a novel seems a binary notion: either you have an idea of what to write about or you don’t. Once at a party, someone repeatedly asked me how my ideas for my novel popped into my head. Describing how an idea came to me felt like describing how to catch a falling star, abstract and impossible.

However, at some point if we want to write a novel, we need to have an idea to work with and we want to make sure it is a good one. So how do we capture these pesky ideas to begin with?

1) Think about what you like. You are going to have to work on your novel for a long time to finish it, so you want to make sure that your topic is something that you are passionate about. Otherwise, it’s going to be even harder to maintain stamina to cross that finish line.

Try writing a list in a notebook of topics that you like the most. What you like can include your hobbies, your interests, your areas of expertise, and any issues that you feel passionate about. Do you skate? Do you play soccer? Are you crazy about dogs? Do you enjoy obscure indie bands? Do you feel strongly about the environment, or small businesses, or rights of minorities, or workplace opportunities, or gay marriage, or accountability in the justice system, or reducing the stigma about mental illness? Some stuff may be deep, some not so much.

Certain interests can belong to your characters, others to the theme of your novel. For instance, if you really like break dancing, you could write a novel where a break dancing competition plays a key role. On the other hand, if you don’t want to write an entire novel about break dancing, a character could break dance as one of their activities.

Of course, your characters and your novel won’t be a complete clone of your life. For those interests that you don’t know much about, you will have to do research. The point is to write about something that you are passionate about, so that you also are inclined to do this research as well.

2) Think about what you like to read the most. Since I like to read YA novels, I’m writing a YA novel. Don’t settle to write a crime novel if you love reading romances. If you really like both genres, then make a decision between the two.

When you are reading (because you are reading, right?), you should pay attention to things that really work in books and things that really don’t. Do you like fast-paced action sequences? Swoon-worthy romances? Mysteries? Humour? What about your last favourite read made you like it the way you did? What aspects from that book can you use to inspire your own writing?

3) Look to other art forms that aren’t just books. Many writers find music deeply inspiring. It doesn’t have to be super highbrow either. Since I write about teenagers, I find that boy bands suit me perfectly well. Gets me in the zone. Some writers make playlists to match their entire novel and although I’m not that into it, I can see how that could help.

Also, visual arts can be very inspiring as well. Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments Series takes direct inspiration from paintings and compares the setting to different artists’ styles. This works with her main character whose mother was an artist. So try engaging with other art to create more art.

4) Think about what you want your novel to say. No matter what genre you work with, there is some underlying message to a novel. What do you want your reader to think about once it is over? How do you want the reader to feel when reading your novel? Even within escapism, there is a general feeling about a book. Should the reader be sitting on the edge of their chair the entire time? Should the reader feel more empathy towards a certain issue or event? Should the reader feel a certain connection with the work, and if so, what?

Of course, your reader may respond differently than how you anticipate, because that’s art. But the point is to envision how you want people to be affected and from there find the tale you want to tell.

5) Keep a notebook. Often inspiration comes when you are distracted. Sometimes you will be out in the world, going for a walk, on the bus, at work, whatever and it will hit you. You will have a great idea. Write it down before you forget so you can use it later.

Often, the best ideas come to me minutes before I fall asleep right before dreaming. I have to wrench myself awake, switch on a light and jot them down in a notebook by my bedside. When I start my writing routine in the morning, I’m very glad I did this indeed.

6) Don’t romanticise ideas. All good ideas have been repeated in art many times over. The originality in your novel may not come from the idea itself, but from how you use the idea.

Think of all the novels about love. Either the couple ends up together or never can be together. Only two options exist really, yet so much different art is out there about this topic. Or the basic but satisfying plot of hero beats villain. It’s not just that the hero beats the villain, but who the hero and villain are, as well as how the hero manages to save the day. The details colour the worn-out plot into something new.

You will put your own unique spin on your idea, so sit in a chair and think until it comes to you. Don’t worry. Eventually it will.

“Carnival of Souls” by Melissa Marr



















Melissa Marr’s books are twisted, violent, and unpredictable. After “Wicked Lovely,” I wasn’t sure if I was prepared for “Carnival of Souls” and after reading it, I must conclude indeed I wasn’t indeed. A new world of daimons and witches completely swept me off my feet.

The beauty of Marr’s style is she is able to build worlds that have unusual magic and social norms. It’s actually the social norms that govern her fantasy worlds more than the magic. The norms affect what relationships the characters are able to have versus what relationships they desire. The caste system of the daimons impacts friendships, romances, and alliances in unexpected ways.

Many people are forced to work together and usually the relationship isn’t entirely positive. Someone usually is working the system to their own benefit, and the reader is left wondering how the character’s choices will impact the plot. A Hunger-Games-like battle to the death in the daimon world certainly raises the stakes.

Of course, Marr grounds her fantasy world with a link to the human world as well. One of the characters is a human girl who’s been adopted by a witch father and is aware of witch customs. Her true identity has been hidden from her, and she spends most of the book trying to work it out. However, she is also important to the daimon world as well. Her witch father has taught her to fear daimons and she has to decide which world she belongs to.

Although the girl in the human world should’ve been the most relatable, I found her the most frustrating. She assumes a passive role through most of the plot and although this isn’t entirely her fault, her obedience does turn her into a weak character. I look forward to seeing how she grows during the rest of the series.



“Gilded Cage” by Vic James

“Guided Cage” is a fantasy book with an intriguing structure. I’m still thinking a lot about it even after turning the final page.

The story follows two families in an alternative Britain. One is a family of commoners without magical ability. The other is a family of magically skilled aristocracy. When the common family is forced to serve their ten year sentence of labour in the household of magically skilled aristocracy, their worlds overlap. And when one of the common children is separated and forced to work in a brutal labour camp, he has to decide whether to fight or accept the system.

The two families with their differences are fascinating. Especially since the story is told from multiple points of view. And when I say multiple points of view I mean multiple. Each chapter is told in third person limited, but which person you get to follow through the story is not obvious and switches a lot. Be prepared for intense cliffhangers where you have to wait many chapters to return to the character’s viewpoint you desire! However, Vic James pulls this off well and I found the different viewpoints added to the story.

This is a highly plot driven novel between the settings of the aristocratic estate and the labour camp. In some sense the overall plot is more focused on how the two groups – the magical elite and the commoners – interact, instead of character-character interactions. However, the macro doesn’t entirely overtake the micro.

There are strong and complex character-character interactions as well. The elite character Gavar with his creepy hold over the commoner child Daisy in addition to a rather tense and unpleasant relationship with his financé comes to mind. This character has a lot going on. Silyen is equally as strange with his creepy magical powers and unclear alliances. However, I found the girl in the labour camp Renie to be more unbelievable. Also the romance in the book (between who I shall not say) wasn’t very swoon-worthy.

Overall, I really enjoyed this read. I wish the ending wasn’t as open as it was, but since this is a trilogy I look forward to reading the rest of the series and learning more about the characters.

On The Importance of Breaks During The Creative Process

I grew up learning the value that if you weren’t working, you were doing something wrong. This value isn’t all bad, it’s given me an excellent work ethic and a tendency to treat procrastination as the source of all evils. However, what do you do when you’re stuck on a difficult problem with your project?

This problem could be a tough calculus assignment where you just can’t solve question six. Or you could not know how to go forward in your scientific research – what technique should you use next or why is the technique you are using not working the way you planned? Or you could hit a plateau with your musical instrument where no matter what newfangled warmup or exercises you try, you aren’t getting better at the rate that you desire.

Writing problems aren’t any different. Despite sitting down at your desk every day at the same time and following your routine to the letter, some days you won’t see any progress. Maybe you can’t figure out a particular plot problem. Maybe your craft is suffering and every sentence sounds like it was written by someone in grade two. Maybe you just hate everything you’ve written and feel like you’d accomplish more if you spent your writing time writing CRAP CRAPPED A CRAP-CRAP-CRAP over and over again.

It happens.

So what are your options?

1) Stick to the writing routine and hope it gets better.

2) Take a break.

Now, I see the first option championed everywhere across the internet all the time. If you stick to a writing routine you will see progress. You need to work through the bad days to gain bulk to your manuscript. Blah blah blah.

It’s very true. I didn’t see my book get bigger until I committed to working on it regularly. A writing routine does ensure that you will improve through consistent practice and build stamina towards completing your projects.

However, I’m not talking about those days where you’re like “Hmmm, I have some spare time should I write/play video games/watch TV and eat chips/read/clean the house/cook dinner/pick those socks up off the floor behind the table who put their socks there anyway/call my friend/watch youtube until my brain only outputs youtube videos instead of normal speech/tweet about writing instead of writing… huh I choose all the options that aren’t writing.”

Those days happen to me often enough, and yes, those are good times to fight and adhere to a writing routine. If you frequently give in to distraction, you won’t see progress.

I’m also not talking about when you are using the first draft technique where you just write ANYTHING no matter what and see where it takes you. That’s fine. Charge full ahead with the writing routine.

I’m talking about when you’ve been stuck on your manuscript for so long that it’s been weeks. I’m talking about when you think about your novel and you feel exhausted. I’m talking about when you’ve been editing and last month you wrote six chapters, but this month you can’t even finish chapter 13. I’m talking about when you really need to find a way to kill the villain but you don’t know where to begin and haven’t for months.

In this case, you’ve been applying the writing routine and it’s simply not working. Why not?

Because your brain is tired.

If you go to the gym and lift heavy weights one day, you can’t expect to lift a ton of heavy weights the next day. The rest and recovery is just as important to lifting heavy as the actual lifting itself. In fact, if you do, you’ll probably injure yourself. If you keep doing heavy lifting with your brain when you’re tired, you risk burn out.

Think about baking bread. You have to let that sucker ferment and rise for a couple of hours otherwise the final product is going to be flat and hard as a frisbee.

Writing is the same way.

If you adhere to your routine when you are stuck, and nothing has improved after several days, you are wasting your time. It’s equivalent to banging your head against the wall.

Take a break. Maybe a couple of days. Maybe a whole week.
Let your ideas ferment.

Afterwards you will have the added benefit of approaching the manuscript with fresh eyes. Your brain will have the opportunity to approach the problem at full power. You might find that your productivity increases after a break. In fact, you might find that the break doesn’t destroy your writing routine, but restores it instead.