Indie Spotlight: Mackenzie Leanne and Swimming in the Black

My fifth indie spotlight is about Mackenzie Leanne and her debut collection of poetry Swimming in the Black.

About the book:

Swimming in the Black is a collection of poems and prose chronicling thoughts of spiraling into heartbreak, anxiety, and depression; the feelings relating to searching for someone; emotions of love; and life as a new adult.

My review:

Swimming in the Black is a collection split in to five parts, chronicling the different emotions in love and heartbreak. Mackenzie’s poems are often short and punchy, and the natural order they’re written in feels less curated than other collections, which I ended up really liking!

There’s great use of page layout in the book- poems aren’t all situated on the same place on the page, which drew me to certain poems throughout. I never really consider the ways in which layout makes an impact until I see it done well!

The collection might not resonate with everyone, as is the way of all poetry, but for anyone who has experienced heartbreak or a relationship that drains your soul- especially if you’ve later found love or fulfilment- there’s likely something that will strike a chord.

Interview with Mackenzie Leanne:

I chatted to Mackenzie Leanne about her experience of publishing independently!

How have you found indie publishing so far?

Independent publishing is tough. Word of mouth is the most important way to get your work noticed, but as an independent author this can be difficult without an established following. Sharing my work is something very new to me, so finding that audience has still been an endeavor. It may have been best to try to form that audience before publishing, but I was impatience and excited. I am just starting to realize however that there are a niche of people who want to help indie authors succeed, and that has been really great to see and gives me hope.

So what made you choose to go the independent route?

I went with self-publishing because I wanted to share my work. It is uncertain of if, or when, an author will hear back from a publishing company, and I no longer wanted to keep my poems to myself. It may be the harder path, the least likely to succeed path, but I am still happy with my choice.

Any experience of the other side of the publishing coin?

The only traditional publishing experience I have is through being a co-author on two psychology research papers. In my undergrad at university I was involved in a research lab, and through that experience I coded data and edited a paper for publication. That experience does not allow you to be creative, and it is kind of hard to compare it to publishing novels.

So speaking of word of mouth and finding a new audience, tell me about your debut and where people can find your work!

My debut poetry collection, Swimming in the Black, is more poetry than prose, but I think that is the new trend with poetry. In fact, that is what got me interested in writing poetry. Before, I was not interested in writing in the genre. I have written drafts of dystopian, fantasy, and contemporary, but never poetry. Realizing I did not have to write something that fit a certain schematic in poetry, really opened my eyes and my creativity. It has been an interesting experience to realize I like writing in this genre. The themes that I cover in this collection are related to anxiety, depression, heartbreak, love, and life as a new adult. They are based upon my own experiences – sometimes directly and sometimes more loosely. Swimming in the Black can currently be found on Amazon.

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Indie Spotlight: Karen C Klein and True Love Bites

This post is a couple of days delayed because originally I had planned to just post an interview. Then I saw the words ‘steampunk vampire novella’ and I couldn’t resist reading one of Karen Klein’s novels before posting! I went in to True Love Bites knowing nothing else except those three words (sometimes I don’t even read the blurbs because I like surprises!) and I really enjoyed it!

My review:

True Love Bites is a short book that manages to pack almost two stories in to it. We start with Alexa, a vampire, travelling by airship to deliver unwelcome news to her reclusive mother. But the story soon shifts to her mother’s own story of love and tragedy in a regency-style pre-airship society and her affair with a married woman in her town.

The one downside of a novella is that I want more of this story. I want to see more of this world that is similar to ours but not quite the same. I absolutely love steampunk and although there wasn’t a lot of exposition on the ‘modern’ setting in the story it was enough to have me hooked from the get-go.

The more substantial part of the story was my favourite; I loved the idea of vampire trying to exist undiscovered within the strict morals of upper class society, while also trying to remain close to the contradictory standards of a vampire family. Alexa’s mother is an impatient narrator, which gives her story quirks as she interrupts to tell her daughter off. It was cleverly written in terms of point of view and time setting. My only wish is that there was another book in the same series to sink my non-pointy teeth in to! I’ll definitely be checking out Karen’s other series in lieu though!

About the author:

Karen C. Klein writes fiction and non-fiction in a variety of genres and styles. She is author of Torin’s Legacy, which is the first book in her series Chronicles of the Mages’ Guild. She also enjoys writing short fiction and novellas. In addition to writing, Karen is a keen researcher, with a librarian’s eye for detail. While in grad school, Karen discovered an enjoyment of website design and has experience in web design using the WordPress content management system. She has experience utilizing search engine optimization and can do so for any content she writes. Karen also has a passion for all things geek culture and co-hosts the podcast, Pages & Pixels: from two geek girls.

Interview with Karen C Klein:

What has been your experience of publishing independently so far?

I have loved indie publishing so far. I get to tell the stories that I love with full artistic control. I get to work with my artistic community. I work with a cover designer I’ve known since high school and a copy editor I met in college. It isn’t an easy route, but there is no easy path in publishing.

What made you publish independently, rather than going a traditional route?

I stumbled across Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s business blog the Business Rusch in early 2013. I can’t remember where I found that first link. But, once I did, I went back and read her whole blog which at the time started in 2009. She wrote: your career is your own responsibility. At the time, it was a light bulb in my head, because I still though I had to get an agent to ever be published. Her whole blog talked about the publishing business. She talked about royalties when no one else would. I want to write full-time. She discussed how traditional publishers pay. She discussed how Amazon, etc, paid. It opened my eyes. In the fall of 2014, after further research, I published my first short story.

What advice would you give to new writers hoping to take a more independent route to publishing?

Don’t expect anything. I think that is true from either side of this business. Publishing is unpredictable. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a friend (whose name I can’t recall) who has a rule: would I be better off writing? For me: the answer is almost always yes.

What about your other projects? Where can we find more of your work?

My work can be found on Amazon, Kobo, B&N, and iBooks. My most recent publications include a compilation of my School of Brides science fiction short stories, Shanti’s Story, which details a young woman coming into her own as the headmistress of a school where girls are sorted for their physical characteristics. As well as a short story, The Battle of the Door, about a woman who closes an interdimensional door that couldn’t be closed for generations with her self-sacrifice. I am working on the third book of the Mages’ Guild Chronicles series and hope to publish it later this year.

Check out more about Karen C Klein on her website!

The Devil’s Revolver by V.S. McGrath

If there’s a genre I never thought I’d be in to, it’d be ‘fantasy westerns’. But after reading a summary of The Devil’s Revolver I realised how wrong I might be. A book about a girl, bonded by blood to a gun that takes a year off her life every time she kills someone, on a quest to find her missing sister? Perfect!

The Devil’s Revolver is a real motley crew of a quest novel through a magical Wild West setting. Hettie is a really likeable character for me, mainly because she goes from subdued older daughter to someone who will stop at literally nothing to save her sister. She has no loyalty to anyone other than Abby, which I think is commendable in a character; she’s not distracted by romance or self-doubt, she’s on a one-woman mission to find her sister despite knowing full well it could be one neither of them survive. It’s been a while since I can’t across a character who was that steadfast in their mission and I love the way V.S. McGrath has written her story.

For me fantasy elements are at their best when they serve to highlight a story, not when the story revolves around them, and The Devil’s Revolver has plenty of little fantasy quirks to make the story interesting; enchanted talismans, portals, deals with the devil, curses guns all work well in a western.

Overall I really loved The Devil’s Revolver and I can’t wait to read the sequel! I’m also after more and more alternate history speculative novels as a result of reading this one!

Indie Spotlight: Jenn Gott and The Private Life Of Jane Maxwell

My third post is all about fantasy indie writer Jenn Gott! I read her superhero inspired novel, The Private Life Of Jane Maxwell, so scroll down for my review and a superhero-based mini interview!

About the book:

As the creator of a popular new comics franchise, Jane Maxwell knows a thing or two about heroes, but has no illusions of being one herself. All of that is shattered, however, when she finds herself swept into a parallel world-one where her characters are real, and her parallel self is their leader.

There’s just one problem: that Jane is missing.

Under the growing danger of a deadly new villain named UltraViolet, the team has no choice but to ask Jane to do the impossible: step into the suit left behind by her double, become the hero that they need her to be. But with budding powers that threaten to overwhelm her, a family she only half-recognizes, and the parallel version of her dead wife staring her in the face, navigating her alternate life proves harder than she ever imagined…

My review:

I was sold on Jane Maxwell the second I read the blurb; alternate universes, an unlikely heroine, a lost love suddenly back in the flesh? What’s not to love!

The Private Life Of Jane Maxwell actually took me quite a while to read. I think for the bargain price of £2.99 I hadn’t expected quite so much story to be packed in to the pages! The story is fast paced, but like all good superhero movies there’s a lot of twists and plots to make the story more than just a sequence of villain-hero battles.

I loved the subplot of Jane and her late wife, whose parallel self plays a vital role in the greater story. Whilst there is some focus on Jane’s grief after her childhood sweetheart unexpectedly dies in a car accident, the story is more about her gaining the confidence to be the hero of her own story.

Some parts of the dialogue are a little cheesy, but honestly that just plays in to the genre for me. Who doesn’t love some cheesy banter between arch enemies?

Overall Jane Maxwell is a fun, action-packed book that’s opened up a whole new genre for me; sapphic superhero novels, which I’ve now discovered is a thing!

Interview with author Jenn Gott:

As Jane Maxwell is such a fun comic inspired novel, I spoke to Jenn Gott about the genre!

If you were going to enter the world of a superhero, which superhero would you choose?

Honestly, like Jane, I’d must rather visit superhero worlds through fiction than deal with them in real life! That said, there are days I would happily trade in this world for Wonder Woman’s home of Themyscira. And of course, who wouldn’t want to visit Wakanda at least once, after seeing Black Panther??

Do you have a favourite comic series or publisher?

I tend to favor “smaller” comic publishers, rather than the big(gest) dogs of Marvel and DC. So for recurring comics, I gravitate toward Image Comics. Saga, Paper Girls, Monstress, Rat Queens, Sleepless–they tend to publish a lot of imaginative sci-fi/fantasy with gorgeous, sprawling graphics. BOOM! Box also does some great work, notably Lumberjanes, Giant Days, and Goldie Vance. For standalone graphic novels, I love some of the work that First Second Books have put out, especially Lucy Knisley’s autobiographical comics.

And, of course, I am always up for a good indie-published title.

Recommend us something you think could be the gateway comic for people who wouldn’t usually pick them up.

The thing that a lot of people don’t realize, if they’ve never looked at comics before, is that the field is WAY more complex than superheroes and spaceships. Really, whatever interest in you have in prose books, you can find in comics. There’s YA, romance, mystery, nonfiction, horror, slice-of-life, sports… it’s endless, really. So for things that are a little different than you might expect, try: “Princeless” volume 1, by Jeremy Whitley and M Goodman; “The Prince and the Dressmaker” by Jen Wang; “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier; or “Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride” by Lucy Knisley.

Jenn Gott’s superhero-inspired Jane Maxwell novel and fantasy Beacon Campaigns series can be picked up from Amazon, or her website!

Soft in the Middle by Shelby Eileen

I’ve seen the cover of Soft in the Middle around the internet for a while now and it’s been on my ‘to read’ list the whole time because it’s just so beautiful. Now that I’ve read it I can confirm that the inside is just as beautiful as the outside.

A lot of this book hit me hard. I have so many pages bookmarked so I can read them again and again:

you think too much love could break a thing like you
but one day the right love will walk through your doors
turn a different light on each day
blow dust off of one thing at a time

and will know that your heart requires one who treads carefully

Seriously, this book is so powerful. Many of the poems revolve around body image, heartbreak, love and loving women and each one packs such an emotional punch. I adore the current influx of modern poetry and the fact that Soft in the Middle references body image, asexuality, struggling to let go and societal pressure means I want more and more from Shelby Eileen.

If you’re not a fan of modern poetry then this book may not be for you, but if you’re open to reading more poetry then I really recommend Soft in the Middle. It’s short, but powerful and- to me- immensely relatable.

Indie Spotlight: Elle Bennett and Hammers and Heartstrings

Today’s post is all about brand new author, Elle Bennett, and her NA book Hammers and Heartstrings, which was released on 3rd April!

About the book

Ipressed down on the keys and heard the notes resonate from inside the piano, the hammers and strings straining to work after years of sitting in dust.”

April O’Connell never expected to be on tour with a band. After all, she’s not a musician anymore. Her piano is in the past, and her future is listening to music, not making it. When she runs into Andrew Washington at a show, she finds herself doing two things she swore she’d never do – dating a musician and going on tour. But his band is local, small, unsigned. She doesn’t think that dating him could possibly turn her past into her present, let alone into her future.

But April’s heart will forever belong to the piano, whether or not she likes it.

My review

Hammers and Heartstrings is a fun, well written debut. There was something about the narrator, April, that should make her come across as unlikeable, but the story is so tied to her character development, and the exploration of the things from the past that still haunt her, that I couldn’t help but want to carry on with her story. She’s developed as a character determined not to get hurt by those around her.

I’m glad the book isn’t being pitched as a romance because I definitely think the story has a lot of value as one about a woman learning to put herself first. Some parts are a little uneven as April struggles with her past and present, but it comes to satisfying conclusion!

I loved the use of music in the book. I could completely picture April playing her piano, and Peristerophobia leapt to life as a small town band hoping to make it big.

Interview with the author

I asked Elle what her experience has been so far of publishing independently.

I’m still very new to this whole publishing game, so my experience is very little! Right now I’m concentrating on marketing for Hammers and Heartstrings, and working on the second draft in the series that will hopefully hit shelves by 2020.

Tell me about the book!

Hammers and Heartstrings is about a girl called April O’Connor, a girl in her early twenties, who used to play the piano and sing, but stopped because of some personal issues. She’s still in love with music, but insists that she’s not a musician anymore. I’m trying to be really open about it not being a romance. More than anything, it is a book about April and her piano and her journey back into music. It’s coming of age and it’s new adult, but it is not a romance.

What was your inspiration behind writing a book about a musician?

I decided to write about a musician because music has always been a part of my life. From my very first album (The Monkees self-titled) to the last album I bought (the new Kacey Musgraves), music has always been there for me. It inspires me. It gives me life. There’s a magic to it all, and I really wanted to capture that in novel form. I like to think I succeeded doing that in Hammers & Heartstrings.

I don’t play any instruments these days, but I did play piano in elementary school and I played the guitar (badly) in high school. I was in choir for ten years, so there was that as well. I can still play part of Ode To Joy on the piano and I can play all of one chord still on the guitar. Piano remains my favorite instrument, and that is why April is a pianist.

Do you have a favourite local/small town band?

I actually don’t have any local bands to recommend right now! I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee a few years ago with my husband and unfortunately, the music scene out here is not quite what it was in my hometown. I can recommend the new Wonder Years album, though. I’ve listened to it on repeat all day.

Do you have a go to kareoke song? If you were singing at Cranberry which song would you choose?

My go-to karaoke song would have to be “Our Song” by Taylor Swift since that’s the only song I’ve ever done karaoke with. My biggest diva song is “See I’m Smiling” from The Last Five Years and I ROCK OUT to it in the car on a regular basis. I’d probably sing that or a cover of whatever song was stuck in my head that day. Right now that would be “High Horse” by Kacey Musgraves.

Did you have a band in mind when you wrote Peristerophobia’s lyrics?

Peristerophobia is the band I had in mind while writing the lyrics. I didn’t want to copy any other band’s style. But I did listen to a whole lot of music to get inspired to write the lyrics. A few of the bands I listened to were: Andrew McMahon’s various projects, Paramore, Alkaline Trio, The Wonder Years, Motion City Soundtrack, Fall Out Boy, The Academy Is, Green Day, Jimmy Eat World, Eve 6, New Found Glory, The Spill Canvas,The Hush Sound, Polar Bear Club,Taking Back Sunday, MxPx….and ABBA. Of course ABBA.

Hammers and Heartstrings is available now! If you want to see more from Elle, check out her blog: ellebennettauthor.wordpress.com

On Men Writing Women

CW: sexual assault.

This is a very different flavour to what I usually write and it includes a personal story that I don’t want to discuss, with anyone, no exceptions. But recent conversations around the ways many male writers describe women has had me thinking.

When I was a teenager I was assaulted and stalked by a 46 year old man. He was my boss, he had all the power, he was relentless and dangerously delusional. He rationalised his obsession by telling me the ways in which I made him unable to control himself; my big eyes, the way I didn’t make eye contact, the fact I laughed nervously at his jokes, the fact I listened to people’s problems. In context, all signs that I was a young girl terrified of losing her job who didn’t know how to get out of a scary situation. In his mind? Fear was romanticised, a look of fear morphed in to wide-eyed adoration for this middle aged alcoholic. I try not to acknowledge it anymore, and it took me a long time to accept that nothing about my physical appearance, my desire to be nice to people and do my job well, meant that I was asking to become the obsession of a man older than my mum. Some of what I’ve written above I’ve never said aloud.

How does this relate to the topic of men writing women?

There’s been a viral tweet going round asking women to describe themselves as a male writer would. It doesn’t need a #notallmen disclaimer, it’s a fun take on a trend of men failing to write well rounded female characters without focussing on how fuckable they are. I opened a reply to make my own take, then realised I couldn’t. Because in my head the only way a man would describe me is still the ways in which I’ve been described by men who haven’t seen me as a person.

And for me that’s where the root of the problem lies. In all the excerpts I’ve seen of poorly written women by male writers have been the undercurrents of not seeing us as fully rounded people. We’re breasts, big lips, sashaying hips; or fat, unfuckable, too skinny to be real women, or butch. Even in a first person introduction, I read a narrator talk more about how her jeans were so tight men could read her credit card number through her pocket. Show me a woman whose internal monologue works that way?

This may seem like a petty point to some. But the dehumanisation of women in fiction by ‘classic’ or ‘literary’ writers (the treatment and classification of women, non binary writers and writers of colour by the publishing industry is a whole other kettle of fish) has a social effect. If our media feeds the idea that the male view of women is accurate, by heralding these superficial descriptions and framing women as things to lust over, then how can we begin to undo those dangerous perceptions in real life. In a world where James Bond’s suave misogyny is the pinnacle of manliness, and women are merely moving, suggestible art draped over his arm, then how can our real life abusers possibly be wrong in the way they perceive us? When men write us that way, they tell the portion of men in the real world that want the excuse to see us as things purely for their pleasure that they’re exactly right.

I am not overreacting. I am not making false equivalencies. We need to demand better representation for ourselves, for women who look like us and those who don’t. Male writers have a duty to examine the ways they present their female characters. Do they read like something you want to fuck? Something you want your reader to want to fuck? Is her anger sexy to you? Her fear? Is she there because you need your male characters to angst over? Then you need to rethink your ability as a writer. Women belong in fiction like they belong in the real world; with their own rounded narrative, not for the development of a man but because we exist as complex individuals and we deserve to be portrayed that way in fiction.

I wanted to include some positive examples of male writers writing women and I originally skimmed through some books on my shelf looking for a paragraph that would say to me yes, this guy knows how to describe women. I soon gave up. Not because it’s impossible for men to write women well, but because the ones that do focus so much on making them rounded characters it leaves little room for whole paragraphs where their internal monologue waxes philosophical about their looks. Men don’t get written that way, well written women shouldn’t either.

Take the man who is, in my eyes, the god of good characterisation, Terry Pratchett. In his books about The Witches a picture of their looks builds up gradually, but well before that you’ve got an idea that Nanny Ogg is a genial menace with the double entendres.

In Paul Trembley’s Head Full of Ghosts Merry, the narrator, immediately describes another female character, ‘best-selling author Rachel Neville’, as wearing ‘a perfect fall ensemble: dark blue hat to match her sensible knee length skirt’. It does two things; shows Merry as a narrator who observes in the way women do in real life, without thinking constantly about their own looks, and introduces a second female character by her achievements over her fuckability.

We need more of this. A lot of the books I read nowadays aren’t written by the ‘literary’ stereotype of the allo cishet white man, and in my experience writers approaching their characterisation from an intersectional perspective tend to be better at writing characters in general. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t hold the established darlings of literary fiction to the same high standards.