Author Interview: Sabrine Elouali

One of the bravest things someone can do as a writer is expose their trauma’s to the world with full honesty and earnestness. When part of that trauma is fighting your own inner demons to begin with, this challenge is especially daunting.

Sabrine Elouali’s poetry collection, Where Darkness Meets Light, seeks to expose the struggle of mental illness from the perspective of someone who’s been there. I can’t help but wonder at her bravery and dedication to be fighting a battle on several fronts and come out of it all the stronger for it. It’s a testament to the project, to her devotion, and to the importance of her cause.

I was glad she took the time to answer some of my questions, and I hope you’ll take the chance to read my review on the poetry collection as well.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Hi there, my name is Sabrine, I’m 24 years old, live in London, U.K. and I struggle with anorexia and OCD.

What is your favorite novel, and has it inspired how you write? How?

My favourite novel would have to be “Broken” by Karin Slaughter. It was written very detailed and open, the descriptions were quite vivid and I always try to get that same level of imagery In my poems.

Tell us about your novel/series.

My book is a poetry collection which sort of follows my journey from when I was young and at school till the present day. Detailing the trials and tribulations of my life as I struggled through many difficult traumas and events aswell as my own mental health issues.

What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers get from your book(s)?

I hope people takeaway that they are not alone and that it’s okay to struggle and have a hard time, but also that there is hope.

What is different about your novel?

My book is different because it’s real. There’s no smoke and mirrors, just pure truth and transparency into what it’s like to deal with mental illness.

What are your plans for future novels?

I currently have a second book in the works which will be a lot darker than my current release. I plan to be even more open to the harsh realities that come with mental illness and not put any boundaries to my truth.

What inspires you to write?

I get inspired by vulnerability and honesty. I always want to be as open and truthful as I can about my story, and it always inspires me when others share theirs.

What do you enjoy about publishing, and what do you struggle with?

I really enjoy the process of publishing, the upcoming excitement, the anticipation, the reading over of your work, it’s all quite fun and gives me a sense of joy. I struggle with the marketing aspect of publishing, being an indie writer isn’t easy and you have to manage all of the selling yourself which can be quite tiring.

What has been your greatest struggle writing, and how would you inspire other writers to overcome it?

The greatest struggle writing would be having motivation and ideas. Sometimes I just go blank and become very frustrated with myself. I’d like to inspire others to overcome this problem by not being too hard on themselves, being patient with themselves and just simply trying their best. There is never any rush.

How can we purchase your book?

You can find my book on Amazon under “Where Darkness Meets Light” or on the Kindle store.

Book Review: Where Darkness Meets Light

“A poetry collection depicting the trials and tribulations of living with mental illness and the journey of one girl’s struggles to try and overcome them.”

Where Darkness Meets Light by Sabrine Elouali is a poetry collection centering around the difficult experience of mental illness including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s at different moments desperate or hopeful, expressing the juxtaposition of the struggle of mental illness to honor your suffering and fight the temptation to give in to it. There were a few poems that blew me away, as if the author saw into my own struggle with mental health and was able to express it from an angle that was both beautiful and haunting.

Elouali doesn’t promise a smooth ride from the beginning. The collection opens with poems centering on tough decisions during life’s at times impossible challenges, loneliness and neglect. As the narrative progresses we see different glimpses into the author’s mind, and find it to be a familiar, albeit dark place. But we also see the glimpses of light that will form a lifeline, rather than leaving us to waste away in the darkness—a purposeful decision by the author, which I’m certain represents their own dedication to not become stagnant.

From the perspective of someone with mental health concerns, I could appreciate the depth to which Elouali covered the disorders and subjects raised, while not relying on the “toxic positivity” trend that is so prevalent in mental health advocacy. While not all the poems affected me on a personal level (to be expected in a collection of poetry) many of them touched on things even I haven’t been able to express adequately on my own.

Audience

If you or anyone you know has mental health issues, this is a collection that would be well worth your time. It takes a deep dive into some tough issues, but does it in a way that’s palatable and profound. If you’ve experienced these struggles yourself, it will feel like looking into a mirror at times. If you’ve watched loved ones struggle with these issues, this is one way to better understand their mindset and the battle they face.

From a poetic perspective, the majority of the poems follow a rhyming scheme, with a few outliers such as OCD And Me breaking that pattern purposefully, and to brilliant effect. They vary in length and tone, but follow a definitive narrative through the book, from a life of darkness to that of lightness—though not in a caustically positive way. I’d say the resolution feels more realistically hopeful, which feels all the more attainable for those of us struggling. The idea of things one day being sunshine and rainbows feels unrealistic and almost crass when history has taught us that happiness is fleeting, and mental illness comes in waves or stages.

What this book is not is a way to assure the mentally stable that mental illness can be cured through the power of positive thinking. If you’re looking for a shallow coffee table book filled with positive phrases and mantras, this is not the book for you. If you’re looking for a realistic, down to earth book that makes a concerted effort to tackle the very difficult subject of mental health in a way that both honors the struggle and portrays there being still hope, look no further.

What I Liked

Personally I gravitate to more free-form poetry, which is probably why the poems that broke the rhyming pattern really resonated with me. But there’s also an argument to be made that it could also be their differentiation that brought them to my attention. Regardless, rhyming or no, each poem had a purpose—there was nothing superfluous or padded in this collection. Everything was slimmed down to bare bones to achieve a goal.

My favorite poem was the quietly profound A Veiled Window; I immediately messaged a friend about it because I was shaken by how much it resonated with me. Some other favorites included the aforementioned OCD And Me, Paper, and Your Brain. There were so many moments reading this that I had to re-read and bookmark because they made so much sense to me based off what I’ve personally experienced.

This is one of those books that I would get copies of to give to my friends who also struggle with mental health issues. Those of us who have been there can relate to these patterns, behaviors, challenges, and thoughts. But most importantly, the hope that Elouali offers by the end of the collection feels like the first warm breeze of spring or a drizzle on a hot summer day. It’s a relief so palpable you can feel it like the quenching of a thirst, and it’s something that’s meant to be shared.

Trigger Warnings: Mental Illness (Depression, Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), Reference to Suicidal Ideation

Author Interview: Whitney Hill

Elves. Weres. Vampires. Djinns. And a single, private-investigator, air-magic-based elemental—a sylph—who is in over her head. The Othersiders are anything but boring.

The world Whitney Hill has built in her Otherside series is a sandbox I’ve loved playing in but I’m thankful I can stand up and walk out of. The series is raw, nuanced, steeped in mythology and mystery. All in the middle of mundane North Carolina, proving you don’t need the glamour of LA or New York to create a powerful book. I was overjoyed to have a chance to ‘talk’ with her about the novel.

You can also read my review of Elemental here.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m a biracial/Black woman who’s been lucky enough to live in four countries and experience so many cultures from around the world. I love hiking and trail running in North Carolina’s state parks – they actually served as a big part of the inspiration for my first series! I’m also a huge mythology buff, particularly with ancient Egypt, and an astrologer. All of that colors my storytelling and the perspectives woven into my stories. Finally, I’m proud to serve as a board director for WriteHive, a non-profit providing free, inclusive events, programs, and resources for writers of all backgrounds.

What is your favorite novel, and has it inspired how you write? How?

I love Kim Harrison’s Hollows series. The growth arcs for all of the characters were well done and I liked seeing how even the “bad” characters had relatable reasons, and the “good” characters had their flaws. It definitely inspired me to write; I wanted to explore a contemporary fantasy world but one where the story came from a perspective, background, and experience that was more like my own.

Tell us about your novel/series.

I write the Shadows of Otherside contemporary fantasy series, which starts with the award-winning and best-selling book Elemental. It follows a supernatural private investigator as she is first pulled into a deadly conspiracy and then has to fight to claim her magic and the power that comes with it in a parallel society in North Carolina.

What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers get from your book(s)?

That we don’t have to live in the boxes that other people put us in for their benefit, and while it might be a long journey with some screw-ups along the way, we can grow and find our voices and our people in spite of everything and everyone trying to keep us small.

What is different about your novel?

I weave in some real-life issues and explore how those impact supernatural beings who also present as humans from marginalized backgrounds. For example, what are some of the things a Black man has to think about when he’s not just marginalized in human society, but is also secretly a wereleopard? What does it mean to be mixed race and have to find your place with both sides of your heritage, especially when you have magic that nobody else does? It’s very much a fantasy story that readers have described as an escape, but it doesn’t shy away from what I’ve experienced as reality in my day-to-day life.

What are your plans for future novels?

I’ll be finishing up the five-book Shadows of Otherside series this year, and then kicking off a new project which I’ve already started but haven’t announced yet — stay tuned!

What inspires you to write?

Actively doing something to see more of people like me represented in fiction. I grew up rarely, if ever, seeing characters who looked like me included in books, games, movies, etc. I wanted to change that and also to inspire the next generation of creatives by showing them it’s possible, even if you have to take an unconventional path to get your work out.

What do you enjoy about publishing, and what do you struggle with?

I enjoy everything about the creativity of it. Just the fact that something started as an intangible thought in my head, and a few months later, I’m holding a printed book. It’s incredible. I struggle with the fact that many people seem to have some preconceptions about indie books or authors, and need a lot more convincing to try something not published by the big 5 (or need help finding it!). Unfortunately that takes a lot of money for marketing, but luckily, my background was in marketing so that helps.

What has been your greatest struggle writing, and how would you inspire other writers to overcome it?

Convincing myself that my stories are worth telling, and trusting that there are readers out there who want to read them. Putting yourself and the worlds you create out for everyone to see can be scary, but all you can really do to overcome it is work on your craft, participate in communities, and have faith in your voice. Hard work, community, and faith.

How can we purchase your book?

My books are all available as ebooks or paperbacks from any bookseller, including indies.

Book Review: Elemental

Enter an urban fantasy world where elves, vampires, weres, djinn, and others maintain a precarious balance of power in North Carolina. Welcome to Otherside.

Elemental by Whitney Hill is an urban fantasy based in North Carolina with an elemental sylph private eye main character, filled with supernatural intrigue that kept me guessing. Like the spellcaster she portrays, the misdirection and sleight of hand that Hill employs along with a healthy dose of character backstory and political chaos kept me on the edge of my seat, making this one of my favorite books I’ve read on my blog to date.

Arden Finch is a private investigator in Durham, North Carolina. When a client comes to her asking for her to find his missing grandmother, her biggest concern isn’t that he doesn’t want the police involved. Neither is that he’s actually an elf, nor is it that she is an elemental. More importantly, is that if he knew what she was, he’d be asking for her head, rather than for her help.

Then again, Arden Finch was used to being in danger. Being asked for help from elves? Not her normal assignment. Despite being one of the Otherside—supernatural creatures hiding under the radar from humans—Arden has always been an outsider, only taking on mundane assignments for her own protection. But her emotionally distant mentor, Callista, has her investigating in some strange places, and this case may be more than what Arden is willing to take on.

Elves aren’t the only ones Arden has to worry about.

Audience:

If you like urban fantasy, this is one-hundred percent a must-read. Hill is someone to watch out for in the genre, coming into the fold with an olympian effort right off the bat. It’s hard to believe this is her debut release. The book is action packed, with well-developed characters and a complex plotline with a web of political and character motivations to make your head spin. It’s a great start to a series that I’m excited to see through until the end.

What I Liked:

There’s an adage in writing to ‘write what you know.’ While many writers seem to scoff in the face of this piece of advice and go for the most showy of settings, Hill stuck with the place she knew by heart (coincidentally, a place I know as well, having lived there for several years myself.) Rather than trying to shy away from real-life details, Hill creates a strong sense of place based on named landmarks, climate, and other minutia. She aimed for the bleachers and was very careful to add enough particulars that made the setting come to life. It was enough to bring back fond memories for me… minus the werewolves, vampires and djinn, of course.

In Arden I found a character that was easy to empathize with and idolize. She’s been raised to be obedient and not question her role despite being a private investigator and independent in her work. Her character is nuanced and complex, and her development through the story enraptured me. I felt a kinship not just at her struggle to apply her strength to her own autonomy of place in the world, but also at her effort to balance doing what was right with what was best for her own needs. I think her conflicts are ones we can all relate to, albeit not with the advent of elemental powers and at the behest of gods and supernatural creatures.

And speaking of which, the supernatural community was unique and well developed. Rather than relying on typical tropes and stereotypes, Hill used her own research and imagination to create a mythology that was based off history and archetypes along with her own flair. Rather than go the Tru Blood route of Southern urban fantasy and using the same tried and true script, Hill created her own Appalachian and Southern fantasy world that I can’t wait to read more about.

At the end of the day, Elemental was a book that left me wanting to read more. It seems like such a simple element (pun unintended) of a good book, but it’s one of the most important to developing a series. There needs to be the balance of satisfaction and asking for more, and Hill did a fantastic job of leaving me feeling like there was enough signed, sealed and delivered at the end of this novel, with just enough to keep me wondering what it really was inside that envelope.

Trigger Warnings: Physical violence, Death, Slurs (not toward any real racial or ethnic group/identity), Threat of Sexual Violence.

Book Review: Just A Little Wicked

“Put away your broomsticks and get out your cauldrons; it’s time to settle in for some frightfully delicious reads.”

Just A Little Wicked edited by Lily Luchesi is a massive paranormal and urban fantasy anthology of short stories and novel teasers that centers around the mystery and mayhem of witches and mages. It’s equal parts dark and fanciful, taking us on journeys across lands, between dimensions and through time while revealing magic, both good and evil, that thrums barely contained within our veins.

The concept for Just A Little Wicked is simple: bring together different authors in the paranormal and urban fantasy genres around a central theme, witches and magic, to tease and entertain in an almost 800-page volume. Even ignoring that such an endeavor must have been somewhat of a nightmare to organize—Luchesi you must be a saint!—the docket is also full of New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors. Suffice to say, At $0.99 on Kindle, I feel like this is some sort of theft, or possibly witchery on its own, so it may be worth pre-ordering before the spell wears off and the authors come to their senses.

Audience:

I want to start my review by saying this book is massive. It’s well worth every penny, because at its core, this is a gateway for expanding your to be read shelf. This is a great anthology to give you a taste for a variety of authors and their series offerings. The stories ranged from whimsical with a dash of humor to quite dark, testament to how vastly different authors can take the same theme. There was still the same thread of spells gone wrong throughout the whole book, which helped tie the disparate threads together.

Ideally this book should be read with the knowledge that few of these stories are complete in and of themselves; therefore, expect to get hooked on quite a few with cliffhangers! This is meant to tease you into a series and get you interested in the authors larger body of work. There are a few stories that could be considered self-contained though they are part of a larger series, such as The Best Witch in Town and Morgana’s Revenge.

Be warned, some of these stories are not for the faint of heart. Such stories as When Echoes Call and Blood Sacrifice are pretty dark with plenty of trigger warnings to be aware of. If you have concerns of possible triggers, please see the bottom of the review for ]Trigger Warnings.

What I Liked:

Different authors approached witches from different angles, from the tried and true evil versions willing to sacrifice virgins and mired in their ambitions, to the kindly neighborhood witch that peddles friendly spells and respects the laws of nature and virtue. It could sometimes be a bit of whiplash going between these two types of stories, so it may be best to read these stories in different sittings. 

I definitely have my favorites, but overall I was impressed by the calibre of work and ability of the stories to capture my attention, leaving me wanting more. There are of course stories that resonated with me more than others, but there weren’t really any ‘duds’ to speak of.

(Disclosure: I was provided an Advance Reader Copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.)

Trigger Warnings: Explicit Sexual Content, Rape and Sexual Assault, Torture, Attempted Infanticide, Human Sacrifice, Execution

Contributors Interview: Just A Little Wicked

Put away your broomsticks and get out your cauldrons; it’s time to settle in for some frightfully delicious reads.”

A project like Just a Little Wicked is a massive undertaking; but with such stars as New York Times and USA Today spotlighted authors and at nearly 800 pages in length, the project is well-worth the price Lily Luchesi and others paid. (Of course, as a reader I can say that!)

I was honored that so many of the authors took some precious time out of their day to answer some of my questions.

(You can read my review of Just a Little Wicked here.)

LILY LUCHESI (Editor)

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hi, I’m Lily Luchesi, USA Today bestselling author of horror, urban fantasy, and paranormal fiction.
I’m an editor by day, writer by night, who loves all things that go bump in the night. I have penned the bestselling Paranormal Detectives and Coven Series, as well as the horror novel Never Again.
When not writing, I can be found cooking, reading, watching crime TV, or going to concerts (COVID permitting).

What was the inspiration for your story?
I was inspired to write Morgana’s Revenge when penning the novel The Coven Princess.
The novella is my universe’s take on Arthurian legend, putting Morgan Le Fay, Merlin, and Guinevere in the magical Coven, at war against Arthur, who wants to banish all magicians thanks to a secret his father, Uther, kept until his death.

What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers get from your story?
The #1 thing is that being different is not necessarily bad. Morgan and Merlin are outcasts, with Morgan’s sudden inclusion with their peers reason for suspicion. The Coven is hunted for being different from the Pendragons’ preconceived notions falsely contrived from the newly translated Bible.
Growing up different myself, both in appearance and personality, my characters are usually on the strange side. I write for teens like me, who need an escape from reality and find kids like themselves within the pages, especially now LGBT+ kids (and adults).
Morgan is bi, Guinevere is poly, Arthur is aromantic, and the Coven Queen is a lesbian.

What is different about your work?
I don’t want to say different. I prefer unique. I take common tropes — such as the Chosen One, enemies to lovers, prophecies, etc. — and put my own spin on them.
Perhaps the uniqueness comes more from writing for the masses while utilizing marginalized characters as my MCs. The ones we were taught SO HARD to hate are my MCs: the creepy Goths, the heathens, the LGBTQIA+ people. I don’t like to be normal or predictable in real life, why should my books be?

What inspires you to write?
I got nothin’. Seriously. Inspiration, for me, can strike from anywhere. I can be taking a walk and have to stop and email myself a story idea, or I will be watching TV and wonder how a detective would feel if faced with a vampire (literally, that was what inspired The Paranormal Detectives Series).
As to why I write, I have always loved making up stories. For most of my childhood, if I wasn’t playing sports, I was living in my head with imaginary friends.
Creating worlds was how I stayed sane, and it still is.

Where can we find your books?
You can find all my books on Amazon, many in Kindle Unlimited. http://smarturl.it/lilyluchesiamazon

STEPHANIE BARR

I’m a full time rocket scientist and single mother with special needs children who herds cats and writes fantasy and science fiction in her spare time.

What was the inspiration for your story?

My ex-MIL is an ordained pagan priestess and I like to work against disinformation about witchcraft and witches so I wanted to highlight those differences, between what people thought and what they do.

What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers get from your story?

Appearances are deceiving and karma is always there.

What is different about your work?

Everything you throw me out comes out differently than people expect. My brain works in weird ways.

What inspires you to write?

Characters. I think up a good character and then they need a story.

Where can we find your books?

http://stephanieebarr.us

NOVA BLAKE

Hi, I’m Nova, a New Zealand author who loves to write magical, spooky, sexy, fun stories. I homeschool my three kids, love to read, and cannot live without coffee.

What was the inspiration for your story?

We recently got a new kitten, and she is so damn cute. She’s technically my youngest’s, but… Let’s just say she is also now my writing familiar. She loves to sleep on my desk, has no idea what a personal bubble is, and gets into everything. The little black cat in my story is definitely inspired by her!

What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers get from your story?

I’m just hoping that readers enjoy the story, have a few laughs, and fall in love with Tori and co. Right now the world is a rough place, and my aim with this piece was to entertain.

What is different about your work?

That’s such a tricky question! Maybe that a little bit of creepy tends to find its way into everything I write, even when I’m not trying… I am a bit of a genre slut (and proud of it!) and have a really hard time sticking to just one thing lol.

What inspires you to write?

So many things. I’ve written stories inspired by a loose thread on a piece of clothing, or from a snippet of overhead conversation, or a random thought. Literally anything can inspire me, it just depends on where my head is at.

Where can we find your books?

You can find them all here: https://www.amazon.com/Nova-Blake/e/B07FPV1P5M

S.K. GREGORY

S. K. Gregory writes urban fantasy, paranormal romance and dark fantasy books. She currently resides in Northern Ireland where she works as an editor. You can find out more about her books through her website – www.skgregory.com Tell us a little bit about yourself. I have been writing for most of my life, published for the last nine years. I recently branched out into mystery writing and my favorite characters to write about are witches.

What was the inspiration for your story?

I love writing characters who are not all good, and my character for this is downright evil. This story will spin off into a story about her daughter and how that kind of influence can affect someone.

What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers get from your story?

That karma is a bitch and if you do the wrong thing you get what is coming to you.

What is different about your work?

It is the first time I have written about a character who is completely unredeemable. She does not care about anything other than gaining power for herself.

What inspires you to write?

Ideas pop into my head, sometimes for a character or a story idea and I build up a world around it. This can come from dreams, newspaper headlines, throwaway lines in a show, really anything.

Where can we find your books?

You can find them in all major retailers and through my website – www.skgregory.com

CORINNE M KNIGHT

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I have started writing after reading The D’Artagnan Romances by Alexandre Dumas and fell in love with the story of Louise de La Valliere and the French King Louis XIV. I felt like their tale needed a different ending and proceeded to write my own. It was only after a few years of perfecting my craft, that I became confident enough to start publishing.

What was the inspiration for your story?

I’ve always been fascinated by the supernatural. Witches, demons, vampires. I tend to use historical facts or items to back their stories.

What are some key takeaways that you’re hoping readers get from your story?

This is so hard to answer without giving too much away. Love knows no race or religion. Love is boundless.

What is different about your work?

This is the first time when I wrote these perfectly imperfect characters. It’s not just the heroine or the hero that is broken. They both have their own issues that they’re trying to overcome. They’re both overpowered as supernatural creatures, but it’s all great because they complement each other so well.

What inspires you to write?

Ideas keep coming up in my head, but music helps me the most. I usually listen to certain tracks, depending on what feelings I wanted to convey at the time. I can’t write without listening to something.

Where can we find your books?

You can find me on Amazon at http://amzn.to/38fkzm0

Book Review: Fated

Four hundred years ago, they sailed across oceans and found a love for the ages.
Today, they must cross time to save it… and their lives.

Fated by Lila Mina is a supernatural romance with multicultural mythological references and the transmigration of souls across time. This genre-bending mixture of historical and modern settings, LGBTQ+ polyamorous relationships, and divine intervention by myth and deities create a unique blend of true to life and arcane trials that leaves the reader breathless page after page.

Four hundred years ago, the Japanese warlord Date Masamune had fought and won his war and secured his clan’s standing as innovators with the help of his warrior wife, Kyoko. He’s determined to be the one who will take Japan across the oceans in their new galley ships, with the help of a handsome Spanish ship-captain, Sebastian Vizcaino. And if their relationship is more than business, well—who would question a warlord?

Not all goes to plan. Sebastian has brought with him more than spices, in the shape of an unheard-of woman navigator and foreigner, Ana. When turmoil erupts before they can even meet, Date is forced into a precarious political position before finding himself swept away to an entirely different time altogether.

In modern-day, partners Lana, Yuki, and Honda are learning to breathe after the strangeness of their supernatural adventures. Instead of the affairs of deities and demons, they are, for a change, concerned about something more mundane: bringing home Francisco, the final pillar in their relationships. 

All seems to be going well, when Honda takes a sudden turn, claiming to be Date Masamune himself.

Audience:

For fans of paranormal romance, neither the supernatural intrigue nor the steamy sex scenes will come as a surprise. But if you’ve come for either of them, you’ll be staying for the exquisite world-building, varied character development, and unexpected plot twists that make this novel stand out.

As far as paranormal romances go though, there are other non-technical aspects that are unique as well. For one, the characters are in their forties. I thought that not relying on the 20-something standard was a brilliant move on Lila Mina’s part, and I hope to see more authors take that stance. Instead of a monogamous relationship, this novel features a four-way polyamorous family, including a lesbian and gay relationship. This is portrayed in a really authentic way, and I loved the inclusiveness of seeing different relationship models shown as viable lifestyles.

This novel also features some traditional and non-traditional references and manifestations of different religious and mythological deities, spirits, and demons, including Shinto, Buddhist, and Roman. While these have, of course, been seen in other novels, this exact combination and iteration is well-researched and unusual. This probably has much to do with Mina’s experience living in Europe and Japan at different times in her life. 

What I Liked:

By far my favorite parts of Fated were when I was so caught up in the action and the world-building I couldn’t tell what part was myth and what part was Mina. There was a significant amount of research that went into this book, and it shows. Not only was there a lot that went into the mythology, but into the class system of feudal Japan in the 1600s and historical events related to the world spice trade and the politics surrounding it. But more than the facts, was that Mina expressed how each character felt about their lot in life in a way that felt natural.

The mythological integration was brilliant. I can’t get into details without risking spoilers, but the way that Mina portrayed different spirits and deities that were native to Japan was at times captivating. Living in the Western part of the world, I’m not often exposed to much of the folklore that was included, so it was refreshing to see new types of spirits integrated I had yet to see.

Last, but probably the most important facet of this novel, is the characterization. What it comes down to is Fated is a book about relationships. The action, the mythos, the research, the world, the plot twists, all of it is wrapping. This is a book about four people navigating the complicated, up and down, terrible, wonderful, heartbreaking, uplifting parts of life and love that threaten to break us and put us back together again. They’re flawed, nuanced, and they evolve through time—exactly as they should. They were individual and distinctive, their backgrounds and voices all set apart. These characters got into my head, and I loved them for it. 

(Disclosure: I was provided an Advance Reader Copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.)

Trigger Warnings: Explicit Sexual Content (including BDSM), Graphic Violence, Mentions of Miscarriage

Author Interview: Lila Mina

There’s a very specific skill needed to pull off writing a book like Fated, something that takes a combination of knowledge and life lessons that are hard-won. It takes a lot of first-hand knowledge of language and culture and a lot of painstaking research.

Lila Mina may be one of the few, maybe only person that could have pulled off such a feat. Having spoken with her (and as you’ll be able to read below), I can see the breadcrumbs of her past in her novel, and I love how resourceful and unique the novel is.

I was delighted to speak with her, and reading her novel was a joy. You can read my review of Fated here.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am a native French speaker from Europe, and I’ve been living in Japan for more than a decade with my family. Writing has always been my creative outlet, for as long as I can remember. I began writing short stories back in junior high school, then went on with writing tons of fanfiction for fanzines, in French and English, when that was a thing. I moved to longer original stories in my early twenties until my law school killed my creative spark. It took me fifteen years to get back to creative writing. That’s when I realized I loved writing stories with extra levels of steam. 

Today, I’m in my early forties, I run a couple of businesses and write whenever I can find the time. For years, even before moving here, I’ve had a deep emotional connection with Japan, and I find inspiration in what I see and experience in my daily life, as well as what I’ve learned over the years. Through my mother’s side, I grew up with a rich inner world based on Scandinavian fairy tales with strong ties to nature and the Unseen surrounding us. So the instant connection I had with the myths and animistic worldview prevalent in Japan that inspires most of my stories doesn’t surprise me.

You’ve had an exciting background yourself! Do you feel the adventures you’ve experienced and the worldliness you’ve attained as someone who’s lived in many different countries affects how you write your characters beyond their cultures?

Definitely! My world and life are so different from when I lived back in my country of origin. Being a foreigner in a vastly different country, with different worldviews, practices, expectations and social rules taught me so much about myself… and the reality of being foreign resident. I figured out what was the most important for me, and what seriously needed work and improvement, above all when disasters and catastrophe struck. It inspired me to write characters who experience life-changing revelations. That’s why all my books have this common point, because cultural differences create interesting tension, chance for character growth and teachable moments between protagonists. People can stay true to themselves yet grow at so many levels.

What is your favorite novel, and has it inspired how you write? How?

It’s a very difficult question. I’ve had too many favorites over the years now, and it wasn’t any particular book that pushed me into writing. 

But if I had to think back to my formative years and the books that made a lasting impact, I think it’s a mix of classics – from Les Misérables, The Three Musketeers to Dracula and Water Margin by Shi Na’ain. Then later the Anita Blake series by Laurel K. Hamilton (my first steps into polyamory and paranormal universe), but also science fiction, historical novels and thrillers. I read Stephen King and Michael Crichton when I was 12-17 for example. More recently, I’ve binged on the Nordic Noir genre (like Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbø) and Chinese and Japanese authors in SFF and crime, notably The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, or Out by Natsuo Kirino. Authors writing magical realism like Haruki Murakami, Jose Carlos Somoza, or Selma Lagerlöf always hit close, and their books have been a major source of inspiration when I began writing in earnest. 

Of course, I cannot forget the long-lasting impression left by James Clavell’s Shogun when I was 16 or 17. It was my first introduction to feudal Japan, led me to watch all Kurosawa movies, and when I began writing Fated, I realized that there was a strong connection with that novel I read 25 years ago.

I didn’t read a lot of pure romance books, and I think this shows in the stories I write. Although all of them have a strong romance plot (and/or extra steamy scenes), with a HEA for the love birds, I enjoy creating the kind of world-building that is more often associated with fantasy and SFF, and the darker side of crime and paranormal always thrilled me. 

It makes it harder for me to reach a specific audience, but genre-blending is a favorite pastime of mine. Reading books from so many cultures and styles also led me off the usual path when it comes to trope and story structure. Some readers find it disturbing, others enjoy the novelty. The only thing I will say is that you should read my books with an open mind and not come here for the fetishes.

Tell us about your novel, Fated, and The Temper Saga series.

Fated is an adult LGBTQ fantasy romance set between modern and ancient Japan, with a time-travel/soul transmigration twist (soul transmigration is a big thing in Asian fantasy). The four main protagonists live in Tokyo as a polyamorous family, raising their children together. One of them, Francesco, is a newcomer into the family dynamics. The plot revolves around him finding his place, along with the challenge of seeing another family member, Honda, get lost in time, replaced by the soul of the man he used to be four hundred years before, a powerful Japanese warlord named Date Masamune, who hates our heroine Lana because of a demonic conspiracy. Half of the story is set in modern times, the other half in a distant past. 

Like in the rest of the series, there are strong supernatural/fantasy elements in Fated, beside the obvious soul transmigration aspect. Japanese demons and deities interfere in the lives of my protagonists, some are foes, some are allies. Half of the protagonists are Japanese (Honda and Yuki), half are Italian (Lana and Francesco). Cultural background and communication differences play an important role in the way all of them come to be together and live as a family. 

In Book 1, Deference, the saga starts with how Lana meets first Honda, her martial arts instructor, then Yuki, his wife. The first trilogy (Deference, Dread, Deliverance) explains how they find out that their lives are directly affected by old curses that impact Honda and Lana. Processing trauma, resilience and healing through openness, love of others and self-acceptance are major themes. Francesco comes into the picture in book 4, Vindicta, set in Italy, when we get to dive into Lana’s traumatic past.

What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers get from your books?

The Temper saga and my books in general are very explicit, extremely sexy – downright kinky at times. I want to show older, mature heroines and heroes exploring their desires together, as this is not enough shown in today’s romance. In fact, there is a major issue in today’s publishing world: once they hit 28, women are ‘unfuckable’. Women’s literature works on a closed-door policy and older bodies should not be shown. Finding your identity, exploring it, changing your life isn’t supposed to happen to women over 28 – the only thing women ‘can’ do is divorce, or remarry. This is of course ridiculous, because life is about constant change and growth, and it sends the wrong message. People can totally figure out their career, their path, their desires and identity (not to mention love) in their 40s and beyond! This is one of the biggest lessons that Japan taught me.

I also hope to make non-queer readers more open-minded about LGBTQ people and families around them. I would like to show that a book with a full LGBTQ cast doesn’t have to be only about them fighting for their identity, but simply living it as such. The core tensions and issues don’t have to be only about that. That’s how we can progressively move to a kind of representation that is truly inclusive.

Finally, I want to show that you can write about dark themes, BDSM and rough sex practices while making sure that explicit and enforced consent is at the core of the relationship. While non-con/dub-con is a sub-genre that has its place on the shelves, we need to see more books where it’s not supposed to be a theme actually show all partners involved having a say and power over what happens. I’m a huge fan of dark vampire stories and love books with huge power imbalance, so I will never judge. However, in more normal stories, whether there is power imbalance or not, but especially when there is, we need to see and hear about consent at all times.

What is different about Fated?

Fated was a bit of a surprise for me. When I was wrapping Vindicta, book 4 in the series, I thought the saga would end with that book. And then, there was a big reveal near the end that almost wrote itself, and I realized I needed to explore that path. It also helped me tie loose ends and offer more insight into my characters, on top of giving more room for Francesco as part of the Honda family and understand this part of Honda’s identity. 

Fated is the only book in the series that has multiple POVs (one per part), as the rest of the series focuses on my main character, Lana. Of course, with its double cast of characters and two timelines, Fated is quite different compared to the rest of the saga. That’s why I consider it to be a quasi standalone book that readers unfamiliar with my series can grab. It does contain some spoilers, but I was happy to see that for newcomers to my world, they were not an issue, rather an incentive to give the entire series a chance. 

Like the rest of the story, it is built on mutual acceptance and support of each protagonist’s identity and desire. They love each other also because each of them accepts that another partner brings something special, necessary and unique to their relationship. At the end of book 4, Honda, Lana and Yuki thought they were a triangle, but in fact, with Francesco, they are a diamond – a shield that protects their children and prepares them for the extraordinary path ahead of them.

What are your plans for future novels?

Fated ends the Temper saga but it’s not the last time that readers see my ‘Fab Four’. I have started a spinoff series, the Dragon saga, where they will be featured, and after so many years writing about them, I do plan to write short stories focusing on them. Book 1 of the Dragon series (How to tame a dragon) should be published later this year. On February 14, I released Platinum Nights, a contemporary romance that is completely unrelated to my Temper universe, but that also features a seasoned couple. It’s my personal take on the good ol’ billionaire trope.

What inspires you to write?

Usually, something I see or read will make me react – positively or negatively, and a plot bunny is born! I can spend months or even years chasing it, or sometimes it’s a done deal in a matter of weeks. It all depends on my current mood and available time.

There’s a belief that writers need to break out at a young age to attain significant momentum in publishing. Do you find that your age has been to your detriment in how others view your work, and/or do you also find that your age adds wisdom to your characters and plotlines?

Well, I cannot speak for writers in their early twenties who want to land a publishing contract. This was never my goal. Having said that, I find it restrictive, limitative and downright discriminatory to set aside a new author simply because they are considered ‘too old’. I guess this tells a lot about how a society sees ‘older’ people (knowing that ‘old’ seems to start at… 29?! lol).

Living in a country that respects the older generations and that praises skills and talents *honed* by years of practice in all kinds of fields, this makes me shake my head. Unless you are exceptionally talented, nothing beats practice, and when it comes to writing, your own life experience can breathe much depth to your characters. It’s quite exceptional (maybe even a fantasy) to have it all figured out at 25, including addressing past trauma, embracing your own identity or understanding your real aspirations.   

Also, this implies that you cannot ‘find your voice’ after you’ve hit a certain age, or that you cannot learn anything new or find your path when you’re over 26. That’s so wrong! All of us can find what motivates us, our creative spark or start from scratch regardless of our age. I started writing seriously at 35, but I also began martial arts at that same age. My teachers don’t care how old we are, it doesn’t matter. Only dedication and practice do. The same goes for writing or any kind of art. 

That’s why I took the self-publishing road. I don’t want to waste time and energy trying to pitch to people who are only motivated by big figures or by social media trends and have a very narrow set of expectations that you should meet. This isn’t real life, this isn’t what real people can and should aspire to, and it blocks so many diverse and minority voices from being heard.

What do you enjoy about publishing, and what do you struggle with?

I love sharing my babies with the world, but marketing efforts are a pain. It’s a solo job and I can’t be on all fronts at all times. Maybe one day I’ll be able to hire a PA, but that’s not possible for now. 

What has been your greatest struggle writing, and how would you inspire other writers to overcome it?

Well, writing in another language than your native tongue is of course a challenge. But for me, the biggest hurdle is to find time for myself. Running two businesses next to writing means that I spend already most of my time in front of a screen, and when finally the day is over, it’s hard to motivate myself or find the energy to continue, even for a couple of hours. So I’ve learned to be kinder with myself and stop stressing over that. There are weeks where I don’t write at all, and then I will have the chance to write dozens of pages in one sitting. 

You talk about coming to writing again after a long break. What advice would you give to those who are considering picking up writing again after losing touch with the practice?

First of all, be gentle with yourself. Start with small. Write what you want, what inspires you, even if you think it’s silly. Share it on free platforms first if you are daunted by the self-publishing process. Find your community, even if it’s small, and join some of the awesome author groups on social media to find people with the same dreams confronted to the same challenges. 

How can we purchase your book?

All my books are available on Amazon stores worldwide. They are also enrolled in Kindle Unlimited!

Book Review: Not Quite Out

William is fine with being just friends for the rest of forever.
Well, not quite.

Not Quite Out by Louise Willingham is a slow-burn contemporary romance with tangible, idiosyncratic characters and messy, complex relationships that tackles real-world issues and questions the norms we have established around our culture of coming out. It’s a sophisticated and complicated novel with characters that are not always likeable and situations that have an uncomfortable resonance, but speaks to our potential to form relationships that traverse the chasms that split between us.

William isn’t straight, but a quiet nervousness and need for privacy makes the words ‘I’m bisexual’ feel like a proclamation of intent, where he’d rather simply finish his coursework.

When he meets Daniel, he’s charmed by his facade but falls for the man beneath. Dan has demons of his own, ones that make Will realize the inherent unimportance of his own internal struggle. But as their friendship blooms, it becomes more and more apparent that the closet Will has made his home is bursting at the seams.

Audience

Be very aware of the trigger warnings in this book. The author is very open about the triggers, and they are made available on the description page before purchase. As always, I also have listed the triggers I spotted at the end of this review, so please check before picking up this book that there isn’t a trigger that can cause you an issue.

If you’re looking for an easy, fluffy, feel-good read this is not the book for you. This is categorized as contemporary romance, but it goes much deeper than a book simply about the development of a romantic relationship. It doesn’t fit into a box as cleanly, which I always find refreshing. 

If you’re someone who yearns to read books that make you think deeper about our actions and how we form and keep relationships, this is well worth a look. There are real-world issues and messy relationships throughout the novel, and the characters make significant missteps that make them often unlikeable. Yet, that is what I loved about the book. It was real.

I would even go so far as to say if you’re a fan of literary fiction and are thinking of dipping your toes into genre fiction, this could be a place to start. This feels like a contemporary romance and literary fiction hybrid in some ways. It doesn’t have the lyrically heavy prose of some literary fiction, but it does focus on complex themes and messages. 

What I Liked 

The writing flows and carries the reader along with it, the prose quirky but easy to read. I enjoyed the first-person point of view, giving us up-close and personal insights into Will’s intentions and thought processes. I don’t think the book would have worked as well in third-person; it felt necessary with Will’s anxiety for us to get the reasoning and thoughts behind some of his actions and choices.

I should note, one of the most interesting perspectives that Willingham brings up in this novel is about the need for those around us to be knowledgeable to the point of intrusiveness about aspects of our lives. There’s an undercurrent of the theme of letting people come to their own understandings and share in their own time, or not at all, which is definitely a stance that I haven’t seen much in modern fiction. I think Willingham is trying to say that in our need to tell others that they can share anything with us, we often imply we need to share everything, which is a very different meaning.

The characters in Not Quite Out are flawed, which I think is what makes them believable. William, our protagonist, is young, naive, anxious, wants to help to a sometimes unhealthy degree, and is still coming to terms that he’s not entirely straight. The relationships he forms are not perfect, and often devolve into disasters that he then has to work through re-building. Sounds a lot like real life, doesn’t it?

Trigger Warnings

PTSD, Drug Abuse, Domestic Violence, Abortion, Self-Harm

(Not Quite Out is a novel with a lot to say, and I was excited to be sent an ARC in exchange for an honest review.)