FICTION REVIEW: The Beloveds

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Title: The Beloveds by Maureen Lindley
Genre: Suspense/Gothic
Rating:  ★★ (2/5)

Elizabeth Stash has never really loved anything in her life except Pipits, the cherished ancestral home of her childhood in rural England. Even when her mother’s favoritism for Elizabeth’s despised little sister Gloria reared its head, Pipits was there to enfold Elizabeth into a voice that spoke through creaking wood and rustling curtains. Her obsessive love for the house only grows with time, and when Elizabeth’s mother dies she is certain that she, the eldest daughter, will rightfully inherit Pipits. But when the will specifies that Pipits will pass to beautiful, beloved Gloria, Elizabeth begins to hatch an ugly plan that will soon consume her entirely.

The Beloveds is a book that flirts with the supernatural but for the most part stays staunchly psychological, delving deep into the malice which Elizabeth nurtures and cultivates.  Elizabeth is a narcissist who can’t properly empathize with other people, considers herself superior to them, and is constantly convinced she’s been wronged.  As far as unreliable, unsympathetic narrators go, Elizabeth held my attention, though some of her diatribes about being betrayed bordered on repetitive.

The tension in this book ratchets wonderfully as the narrator becomes more and more delusional, and as her actions become progressively more criminal and poorly disguised. However, and to my great disappointment, this suspense ultimately comes to nothing. Elizabeth character’s steadily erodes, but the lives of those around her remain largely unchanged, as as the book reaches what I hoped would be a gloriously cacophonous crescendo, it goes out with a whimper rather than a bang.

The Beloveds is an engaging read that cultivates a Gothic atmosphere without pulling in some of the more scenery-chewing tropes of the genre, but ultimately, it falls flat. It felt like one long character sketch, and Elizabeth’s family remained so unbelievably oblivious to her machinations that I supposed there must be some catch, something hidden from the narrator that would be revealed in the big finish. Sadly, there was not, and without any satisfying cherry on the cake of nastiness, The Beloveds is ultimately an unremarkable summer read.

Note: I received a copy of The Beloveds in exchange for an honest review. The Beloveds is set to drop on April 3, 2018.

Fiction Review: Gods of Howl Mountain

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Title: Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown
Genre: Action/Historical Fiction
Rating:  ★★★★★ (5/5)

After losing his leg in the Korean War, Rory Docherty returns home to the wilds of 1950s North Carolina to run whiskey for the most feared bootlegger on the mountain. Here, family ties are everything, moonshine is more valuable than gold, and secrets are hard to keep buried. Rory is haunted by what he’s seen in the war and what happened to his mother, struck dumb and left unhinged after witnessing an act of horrible violence. In order to find the men responsible, he’ll have to face down federal agents, duplicitous women, snake-handling preachers, and feuding boys out to prove themselves on the racetrack in souped-up coupes. That is, if he manages to stay alive long enough.

Gods of Howl Mountain is equal parts heart-pounding action and memorable characters you can’t help but love, flaws and all. Granny Mae is the crowning achievement of the story. A (mostly) retired lady of the night whose taken up witching and remedies to help pay the bills, she’s tough, sharp as a tack, and marvelously fearless. Even though Rory is our POV character, she’s the heart of the story, and all the characters have a way of turning up at her door to seek her services or advice. She’s the best of all the world-weary, wisecracking women I knew growing up in Appalachia, and I never got tired of her.

Brown’s prose is lush as the wet, green-black forests of Western North Carolina, and he has a great talent for ratcheting the tension up to ten while taking his time with the descriptive passages. The dialogue is a wonder; so steeped in the backwoods you can practically taste the corn whiskey, and it serves to show just how clever all these characters are. There are double-crosses aplenty here, and wrenching moments of tenderness that batter your heart. I was totally gripped by this book, and Gods of Howl Mountain earned my highest rating fair and square, with no complaints on any account.

Note: I received a copy of Gods of Howl Mountain in exchange for an honest review. 

Seven Ways to Break Into the Publishing Industry

Today someone on Tumblr asked me how I had gotten my position as an associate editor of the Princeton Theological Review, and if I had any advice for those seeking a career in publishing. Well, I’m in the trenches right now seeking a career in publishing or book publicity, and I’m happy to share job-hunting tips I’ve collected along the way!

  1. Apply to work for your campus literary magazine or academic journal.  Campus mags are a great first step towards your goals; they tend to be eager to bring on new associates and to teach them the ropes. My first editorial job was as a submissions reader for my campus magazine; it was by no means high-profile, but I learned a lot about working as part of an editorial team. Once you’re brought onto the magazine, ask if you can help with or observe all the different stages of production. Be a sponge. Absorb everything.
  2. Gain editing, marketing, and writing skills at other jobs. While in college I worked as a web content editor for the provost, a writing tutor in academic advancement, and a scientific writer and editor at a national environmental agency.  None of these jobs related directly to publishing, and they required me to learn new skills, like basic graphic design and navigating the back end of drupal, but the experiences I gained are very translatable to a publishing context. Landing a job is all about showing employers that the skills you already have are the ones they need, whether or not you initially seem to check their “requirements” boxes.
  3. Sniff out internships at publishing houses, newspapers, or literary magazines. I worked as a summer intern for a local paper, but I so wish I had taken the time to be mentored by a literary agent or fiction editor!  If there are no job postings that interest you, don’t be afraid to send a company you love a brief, polite email asking if they would like an intern, and be sure to attach your resume. Sometimes you can find paid gigs, other times you have to do due diligence in an unpaid position for a semester.
  4. Know your industry. This is crucial. I’ve heard of interviewees at Penguin or Tor being thrown for a loop by the most important question an interviewer is likely to ask: “‘what have you been reading lately?”. If you’re looking for work in academic publishing, be up on current research; subscribe to journals in your field or read the current editions in your library for free.  If you love fiction, be able to rattle off authors you’re into and cite a couple of game-changers published in the last year. Extra points if they’re associated with the company you’re in talks with.
  5. Publish. There’s no better way to get a sense for the shape of peer review and the academic publishing process than to go through it yourself. So revise and polish some of your best academic work and start sending it out to journals.  If you’re a fiction enthusiast who also pens short stories and poems, it can never hurt to have your name in a couple of magazines where you would like to work. Those with journalistic aspirations might submit their bookish articles to place like BookRiot.
  6. Consider conferences and conventions. Cons are pricey and might not be a reasonable investment for you right now, but the kind of connections you can make there are invaluable. Big publishing events like BookExpo in New York, The Miami Book Fair, and the LA Times Festival of Books can be fertile territory for meeting authors, connecting with publishers, and passing out business cards. If you’re an academic, look into conferences where you can present your research, but also consider going even if you aren’t presenting to learn and connect.
  7. Slay social media. Make your accounts clean and professional, but also be attentive to ways to brand yourself with a unified tone and clear statement of what it is you’re good at. Connect with journals, contributors, and editors on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, and showcase your projects, articles, and work experiences on those platforms. Networking is absolutely essential in this game.

I hope these tips help you guys get connected to some great opportunities! What advice do you have for someone looking to establish themselves in the publishing world?

Fiction Review: The Lesser Bohemians

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Title: The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
Genre: Adult Fiction
Rating: DNF

Oof. This wasn’t a pleasant ride, friends, and I DNF’d at page 80, something I am really loathe to do unless a book is not enriching my life whatsoever. That said, there’s some strong points to this sensuous, experimental novel, and I want to give them their due.

The Lesser Bohemians is told from the point of view (deep point of view, you might say) of an eighteen-year-old Irish girl who moves to London to study acting in the 90′s. There she meets an established actor in his late thirties, and the two fall into bed together and being a tortuously on-again, off-again affair of sex, frustration and reconciliation, healing, and harm.

The steam-of-consciousness style narration is much more accessible than other times I’ve seen it used, although it took me until about page fifty to really settle into the dreamy, internalizing rhythm. McBride’s done something really wonderful here with dialogue and action all running together, and the narrator’s personal thoughts slipped furtively in between in smaller print. It’s a feat, and she ought to be given credit for it.

That said, the narrative style keeps the reader suspended between raw euphoria and drunken disorientation, which made the constant barrage of blackout nights, substance overindulgence, repressed vulnerability, and screamed betrayals incredibly unpleasant for me. At almost 100 pages into the narrative there seemed no light at the end of the tunnel of alienation, compulsive behavior, and budding addiction. I would hype myself up to finish the book and then only get ten or fifteen pages in before getting so upset that I had to put it down because the secondhand sexual shame and impostor syndrome were too strong. However, that sort of visceral reaction is a testament to the book’s main strength: entirely immersive storytelling. You’re as close to this narrator as fiction is liable to allow you to get, and you experience all her anxieties and hopes in your own body, adrenaline and all.

This DNF isn’t a mark against the strength of McBride’s writing. The beautiful prose just wasn’t enough payoff for the subject matter for me, but that’s not to say that will be true for every reader. Maybe McBride’s next novel will pair her astonishing talent for voice with a story I find more worth telling, and I can give her another shot then.

Disclosure: I was given a copy of The Lesser Bohemians by Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. 

Spirituality Review: Tantric Jesus

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Title: Tantric Jesus: The Erotic Heart of Early Christianity by James Hughes Reho
Genre: Spirituality/Christianity/Yoga
Rating: ★★★★ (4/5)

I went into Tantric Jesus not knowing what to expect and fearing the book might be full of poorly reasoned new age platitudes, but I was pleasantly surprised. The book was beautifully written, accessible, and genuinely thought-provoking. As someone who is always looking for the next big title in emergent spirituality or postmodern Christianity, Tantric Jesus was a treat.

Dr. James Hughes Reho is an Episcopalian priest, yoga instructor, and spiritual director who holds a PhD from Princeton University. Tantric Jesus is the obvious fruit of hard work, personal devotion, and painstaking research. The book seeks to uncover the mystical, body-positive roots of early Christianity and bring them into conversation with the ancient tradition of tantric yoga. For those who think tantra is all about libertine sex acts and spooky rituals, don’t be alarmed. Reho presents tantra as a radically matter-positive worldview that celebrates the divine face of the feminine, connects us on a deep level to creation and the Creator through intentional embodied practices, and taps into the truly erotic (here meaning not just sexual, but holy and deeply rooted) desires of our heart.

Reho shares anecdotes about his travels to monasteries, ashrams, temples, and churches, and about his personal tantic practice as well as his devotion to Christ. He blends these anecdotes with theology about Jesus, the physical embodiment of God who participated in the world by breaking societal taboos, re-invigorating the spirituality around him, and urging his disciples towards greater deification or Christ-likeness. Instructions for spiritual practices are included at the end of most chapters, so the reader can experience the deep indwelling of the divine through foot-washing, breath-work, icon-gazing, or sacred sex with a covenanted partner.

It’s obvious that Reho has done his research, both into the philosophy and practices of Tantra and into the writings of the early church fathers and mothers. That’s one of the reasons the book is so compelling; every time I quirked an eyebrow at an idea that seemed a little far-fetched, Reho provided supporting sources. He’s really plumbed the depths of Christian mysticism and early Christian writings to cast new light on Christianity both as a religious identifier and a state of being. His theology is strong, though those with a very high Christology might be put off by his middle one, and those who recoil at the first blush of syncretism will probably not enjoy his integrated east/west Christian framework either.

As with any religious work that draws upon the practices of a variety of worldviews, the temptation to cultural appropriation is there, and though Reho seems to deeply understand and honor his subject matter, I’m not sure it’s advisable to a reader to pick up this book and jump right into yogic practices without reading up more on the culture and religious philosophy of India. However, Reho is a temperate and wise guide who urges moderation and discernment in all things, and I do believe that is what makes such a risky topic fruitful and worth exploring.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Divine Dance in exchange for writing an unbiased, honest review of its 

Top 5 Spooky Books for Halloween

Even though Spooktober is well upon us, I wanted to share my favorite scary books for anyone looking to squeeze in a few more frights before Halloween. They run the gamut from pleasantly autumnal to deeply unsettling; so the Halloween homebody and horror aficionado alike should be able to find something suited to their tastes.

The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey

This historical horror follows the gory adventures of Pellinore Warthrop, esteemed professor of “monstrumology”, and his eleven year old apprentice, Will Henry. The pair travel through the graveyards and basements of nineteenth-century New England in search of a brutal night beast. The book is presented as a series of diary entries discovered long after Will Henry’s death, and ruminations on Will Henry’s relationship with his demanding mentor accompany the accounts of autopsies and gunfights.

Although The Monstrumologist received the 2010 Michael L. Printz Honor Award for excellence in young adult literature, it remains fairly unknown in YA circles. This might be due to the book’s overall darkness, or it’s proclivity to wax nihilistic on the culpability of God in the face of evil. These factors, of course, only contributed to my love of the novel, and I’m pleased to say the entire four book series seriously delivers on scares, character development, and heart wrenching revelations.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

This postmodern magnum opus layers the narratives of a photographer who documents the rooms which appear in his home without reason, the recently deceased man who left behind hundreds of pages of academic analysis on this event ten years later, and the troubled tattoo artist who slowly loses touch with reality while trying to piece together his disordered essay pages. The book is rife with footnotes, photographs, and appendixes, and as the story progresses, squares of text go missing, shocks of black assault the eyes, and words run backwards.

To make things even weirder, the various texts within don’t just cross reference each other, but real celebrities, poems, and events. You’re sent rushing to the internet to confirm that something you’ve always thought was real is indeed so, or to become very, very unsettled when you realize it actually isn’t. While an undertaking, the book draws in even the most impatient reader and refuses to let go until you’re tangled up in the unpleasant landscapes inside of your own head.

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

This charming adventure for “ages 11 and up” takes place on Halloween night in the American heartland. The costumed carousing of eight young boys leads them to the eccentric and ancient Mr. Moundshroud and an enormous “Halloween tree” bedecked with jack-o-lanterns. When something rises out of the shadows to snag the most beloved of the gang, Pipkin, Moundshroud leads the boys on a journey through Halloweens past in the hopes of rescuing him.

The Halloween Tree offers up the best of Bradbury, from his gleeful menage of metaphors and onamonapia to his strong thematic sense. Though the story is simple and the page-count a modest 145, the book explores the history of Halloween, the indissoluble bonds of childhood friendship, and the way humans have always dealt with the passing of  life into death. You’ve heard of the true meaning of Christmas; The Halloween Tree serves up the true meaning of Halloween with glee.

 The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd

This adult novel is my favorite re-telling of the Frankenstein story, one that imagines Victor Frankenstein as the troubled college friend of Percy Bysshe Shelly. Revolutionary, atheistic Percy goads the obsessively religious Victor into pushing deep into his creative potential, with disastrous results. The book features pitch-perfect guest appearances from the graverobbing Doomsday Men, hedonistic celebrity poet Lord Byron, and Mary Shelly herself. As Victor’s faith and sanity begin to unravel, the narrative hurdles towards tragedy with a sharp eloquence and gothic sensibilities that would make the staunchest Shellyphile proud.

Best read in one feverish sitting if possible, the novel eschews the supernatural for a more psychological approach to its scares, and has an absolutely wild twist ending that still satisfies.

The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

This steampunky YA fantasy takes place in an alternative Victorian England split in halves by the Prussian war and ravaged by awful beasts referred to as wych-kin. Teenage wych-hunter Thaniel Fox uses a potent blend of magic and technology to keep the city safe. He teams up with Alaizabel Cray, a half-crazed girl who has been turned into a magnet for wych-kin by a high society cult. Together, the two must unravel esoteric conspiracies and evade the grisly serial killer whose story runs parallel to theirs.

There’s a lot going on in this book, but it’s all served up with substance and style in a slick, fast-paced package that really works for me. Wooding brings his eye for memorable, mature characters and immersive sensory detail to the novel, putting it a cut above many other YA offerings.

Spirituality Review: The Divine Dance

Title: The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell

Genre: Spirituality/Christianity

Rating:  ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Divine Dance in exchange for writing an unbiased, honest review of its contents.

I don’t often re-read nonfiction books, but I’m confident I will return to The Divine Dance in the future, simply because the wisdom it has to offer is so rich and multilayered. Finishing this book marked one of those sought-after seconds of clarity in life when you really seem to “get it”, or at least glimpse with clear eyes some party of the Cosmic Design. No, seriously.

Richard Rohr is Franciscan priest, mystic, and spiritual director who has authored over thirty books on contemplation, Catholicism, and the Christian life. Mike Morrell, a talented author in his own right, is the publicity mastermind behind the The Wild Goose Festival, the Buzz Seminar, and the commercial success of such literary game-changers as The Shack. Together they make an sharp team particularly well suited to delivering one simple truth about the Godhead: the Trinity is eternally creative, eternally vulnerable, and eternally loving, no caveats needed.

Rohr and Morrell spend 200-odd pages unpacking the implications of this statement with the reader, walking alongside you in love as you wrestle with what the nature of the Trinity might mean for your life. Here’s a taste of some of these stunning potentialities: God loves you entirely because you are in and cosmically indistinguishable from the life force that binds the members of the Trinity, religious pluralism is both ethical and holy and can exist without sacrificing Christian identity, and “the foundation of authentic Christian spirituality is not fear, but joy” (123).

Let me assure you, this breaking open of culturally accepted ways of doing Christianity are not a modernist innovation. Its deeply rooted in orthodoxy and sound spiritual practice, and there are seven contemplative practices offered in the last chapter in order to give readers tangible ways of participating in the life of Trinity. The style is simple, almost conversational, and makes good use of anecdote and theory in equal measure. Furthermore, the authors dont shy away from critiquing the failings of the church, the damage done by a divided political system, and the emptiness of modern hyper-individualism without giving into the temptation to point fingers. The result is incredibly life-giving.

In summary, The Divine Dance proposes a new way of doing life, of viewing God, and of inhabiting one’s own body in light of truths that have been in front of our eyes for a very long time, but perhaps hidden from true sight. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in spirituality, meditation, or 21st century religion despite their religious background.