Book Review: Lesser Known Monsters

“Being the chosen one isn’t always a good thing.”

Stories of heroes and monsters have been passed down since we were able to make fires to share stories around. They enthrall us in their grandeur, shock us with their intensity, terrorize us with the horror that lurks within the shadows. But ultimately, the heroic protagonist, through virtue of their strength and ingenuity, arises victorious.

This is not one of those stories.

Lesser Known Monsters by Rory Michaelson is a dark, queer fantasy debut that balances an intriguing plot, striking and diverse characters, and a whirlwind gay romance all on the backs of a protagonist that is endearingly… average.

Oscar Turndale knows what it’s like to be left behind. Abandoned by his parents at a young age, he immediately empathizes when a young girl is brought into his ward at the hospital with severe injuries and no parental figure in sight. When the girl points to a fellow colleague and not-quite-ex-boyfriend as the culprit, Oscar and his friends Zara and Marcus quickly find themselves in over their heads when their search turns to the supernatural.

The Good:

What really kept me on the edge of my seat was that I genuinely cared about the characters. The problem with a lot of plot-driven stories is that the characters are often underdeveloped, cardboard cutouts that the writer knows does well to serve a certain purpose. They’re tried and true caricatures of real people, created to fulfill a need. This is partially why a lot of authors rely on stereotypes—because they know how the audience will react to those stereotypes.

Michaelson’s characters were unique. They were vivid, nuanced, driven by their own wants and needs. They peeled themselves off the page and became real in my mind, not in spite of their uniqueness but because of it. They were diverse, and fully embraced that diversity.

The plot itself was intriguing. I loved the idea of an ‘average’ hero, one who makes mistakes with very real consequences and relies on the strength of their found family to get them through. The format was very well crafted, with monster profiles and interludes that all intertwined into a narrative that was intelligent while still relying on the inherent fantastical elements.

Should You Read It?:

As always, please consider the Trigger Warnings in the section below if you have any triggers that may be a concern when reading.

We talk a lot about Own Voices in the writing community—that is, books written by the minority that is represented within the book. This particular novel is considered Own Voices in regards to queer representation, and it shows. There’s just about every letter in LGBTQ represented, and not in passing either; not only are the identities present, but they thrive. You can often tell when a character is put in a story where their identity becomes the character, but Oscar, Zara and Marcus are all fully formed in their own right. If you’re looking for a supernatural or modern fantasy book with queer representation, Lesser Known Monsters would be a fantastic pick.

And at the end of the day, off all the books I’ve read for my book reviews, this has been one of the most fun. Even though there was tension, mystery, and heartbreak, it didn’t overwhelm and it wasn’t overdone. I realize that’s not the most measurable or explainable of merits, but I simply enjoyed reading it. 

Trigger Warnings: Genre Consistent Gore, Implied Sexual Situations

Author Interview: Rory Michaelson

There’s something about average that scares us. We try everything and anything to be considered above it, when most of us will spend our lives at average, just above, or just below.

It’s for this reason that I found the premise of Lesser Known Monsters so intriguing—a world where being the chosen one isn’t a good thing to begin with, and on top of that, the chosen one is as un-exciting as… well, myself.

It takes guts to eschew time-old traditions of heroes, anti-heroes and all form of the ‘above’ or ‘below’ to choose the middle ground as the place to set your sights for a character, so I was excited to talk to Rory Michaelson about their debut novel and about their future writing goals.

(If you haven’t yet, you can also read my full review of Lesser Known Monsters here.)

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m pretty socially awkward and introverted, some people might think I’m quiet, but most of the time I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to say. I grew up in a small village with a profound lack of diversity. I love taking that first sip of coffee of the day. I usually prefer salty snacks over sweet but will murder any cookie. I prefer silence to sound but will settle for music if quiet can’t be found. Sometimes I make things rhyme by accident. I’m scared of spiders, moths, and the slow march toward my inevitable and disappointing death. This is getting weird, let’s do another question.

 

Tell us about your novel.

Lesser Known Monsters is about Oscar, who is spectacularly average at best. He is dragged into the scaly underbelly of London, which he discovers is full of strange and mysterious monsters. It seems that Oscars life is in danger, and his fate is somehow linked to that of the world. Lucky for him, Oscars friends are braver and smarter than him, and at least one particularly handsome monster seems keen to help. Lesser Known Monsters is a contemporary own voices Queer Dark Fantasy, paranormal m/m romance, and above all the story of a strong and diverse found family coming together to save each other, and the world.

 

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

Has anyone ever just answered with one book? Can you imagine?!

Like many fantasy fans, I grew up all Jordan, Pullman, and Tolkien. It’s a funny thing, being captured by worlds but utterly failing to find any trace of your identity within them. It wasn’t until I read the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb that I began to find more relatable characters. That was when I became a voracious reader. Now I chew through tonnes of indie and mainstream books. They’re not all queer, but lots are (and why not, it’s about time!). VE Schwab (Shades of Magic), Fonda Lee (The Greenbone Saga), and Leigh Bardugo (The Six of Crows duology) are incredible authors with brilliant world building, diverse characters, and a sense of fun that has really shaped the kind of stories I want to both read and tell. From an indie perspective, Halo Scot’s debut (Edge of the Beach) really broke the mold and challenged so many conventions it was utterly inspiring. Dean Cole released a beautiful and haunting story this year that I loved (Chasing Ghosts), and Ash Knight managed to pull me into the romance world with her brilliant debut (Stay). Something all these authors have in common is that they focus on their characters first, reading them is really teaching me a lot about digging into my own characters.

 

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

Life is scary and overwhelming, and it’s okay to need help or let people know you are just doing your best to hold on when things are hard. Using your voice and saying what it is you want is sometimes the only power you have but can also be the most powerful thing to do. There’s a lot more things I want people to get out of it, mostly just having fun, but I won’t say anymore because if I retain a little mystery and anyone tells me they got some significant message I didn’t realize, I can nod sagely and pretend it was entirely intentional.

 

What is different about your novel?

Writing a main character who isn’t a hero feels refreshing. Oscar and his friends’ journey is messy and fantastical, but punctuated with familiar issues like doubt, and betrayal of trust. Although most of the characters are queer, that queerness isn’t an obstacle or conflict for them in the story. It may be an obstacle for others, but every character enters the story fully realized and embracing their identity. Writing a new adult story with queer characters sometimes really feels like young adult story, because there are generations of us a decade behind because the world isn’t geared toward us, and the literary world is no exception. So many of us grew up completely unrepresented in the stories that we loved, and I was starving for it. I really wanted to write for that very specific version of myself, and portray a time when we are really coming into our own and there’s that kind of flailing vulnerability, but with a supernatural edge.

 

You describe your main character, Oscar, as not a hero. What made you want to write a main character that was ‘average’?

I wanted to make Oscar profoundly human; that way, when I drop him into a world of terrible and powerful monsters it really gives me an opportunity to explore how it changes him. Having a main character who is vulnerable, anxious, cowardly, and indecisive really let me give him room to grow. It was also interesting to see how his presence impacted and changed ancient and powerful monsters, and maybe get them to show some vulnerability too. Lesser Known Monsters is about Oscar’s growth as a person as much as it is things that go bump in the night, and I’m hoping really that it’s that grounded journey that helps people invest and relate to the story.

 

What are your plans for future novels?

A first draft for a sequel to Lesser Known Monsters aggressively tore its way out of me at the beginning of summer. Literally just used my body to unravel itself in a few days. I’m still resting it now, considering where things would go from there. Other than that, I’m sitting on a story about steampunk sky pirates with superpowers that I’m dying to get out of my system.

 

What inspires you to write?

Writing is a superpower; it doesn’t matter how objectively good at it you are. It gives us the ability to time travel, and create worlds and people that feel real. We can unpick real events and fragment things that might have subconsciously confounded us for decades. For me, writing is a kind of therapy. Inside my head is a very loud place, and sometimes when I’m writing, all of the distractions and errant thoughts slide into place and point in the same direction, if only for a moment. Is that what euphoria is?

 

You describe your writing almost as a kind of therapy. This seems to be a common thread for many of the authors I’ve interviewed—and myself included. What kind of advice would you give to someone who’s struggling that may want to try writing as a way to process their emotions?

I find the creative process very nourishing and it’s not really something that I get access to anywhere else in my life. When you’re letting thoughts and ideas flow out of you I think it’s only natural to unearth darker things too. You can start to pull threads that unravel things that are difficult to handle, so it’s important to  have support systems in place. When we start writing we don’t want to share anything with anyone, but once those floodgates have been opened suddenly we feel strangely obliged to share everything. Writing with honesty can be visceral and cathartic, but you don’t need to share everything in its raw form — or even at all. You might want to break things up to use in your work, keep them private, or get rid of them altogether. Some words are written to be destroyed.

 

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

Writing a draft is probably my favourite thing. It’s raw and primal, and you can get that really lust drunk feeling for the story that is coming out of you. I struggle with pretty much everything else. Editing, particularly, does not come naturally to me due to issues with my attention span and focus. Since finishing Lesser Known Monsters, navigating promotions and distribution has also been tricky. I’ve been very fortunate to have an excellent support network, and fantastic editor (Charlie Knight).

 

I won’t ask where you get your ideas from (unless you want to answer that!) but you mention that the drafting process is your favorite part of writing. Do you plan out your story in advance (plotter) or figure things out as you go (discovery writer)?

I wish I could tell you where I got my ideas from because that might help me chase them. Strangely, Lesser Known Monsters started with the title just popping into my head, and I reverse engineered the story backward from there. When I first started writing, I over-planned. I had spreadsheets mapping every part of the story. The problem with that was that by the time I had planned so thoroughly I had told myself the story already, making it difficult for myself to find the motivation to actually write the draft. Now I tend to outline major points and discovery write in-between. Usually scenes play out in my head like movies whilst I’m doing mundane things. The most important stage for me is resting that first draft, as it gives time for me to season it with cool scenes and fun dialogue that I didn’t think of on the first pass, and get all the foreshadowing in place.

 

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

Myself. The expectations, and limitations I set for myself. The impact that I let my perception of other people’s opinions have over my pursuit of storytelling. I remember writing a little when I was a teenager, and I was quickly overwhelmed by those “who would ever read what you have to say?” feelings. It took me until I was in my thirties to learn to ignore my own bullshit and just let the stories inside me come out. I had to embrace that writing those stories for myself was still valid and important, and soon after that I realized that telling those stories for myself was precisely what made them special. Don’t ever let self-doubt be the reason you aren’t doing something you want to do.

 

How can we purchase your book

Lesser Known Monsters will be released on Halloween and is available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. For people living in the UK, if you are interested in a signed addition feel free to contact me directly via Twitter. Special pre-order promotions will be available, check for details on my website rorymichaelson.com!

Rue|Lou Prompt Series: “Brave New Day”

For the 10/15/2020 prompt, Lou submitted “Brave New Day.”

Below are the prompts submitted for this week. Thank you to all the participants!

Click on the links to read each individual submission.

MASTERLIST:

“The frenetic chatter from the hanger grows distant as the lift takes me up and off the base floor. This should be second nature by now, but I am still star struck every time.”
Untitled, Caylan

“How fast it darkens in the wilderness. It is very much like what Hemingway said, gradually then all of a sudden. It got so dark I could not even see my hand in front of my face.”
Not a Trail, Lini

“Jay stirred when he felt Roman’s body slide against his in the warm bed. His skin carried the outside cold, the scent of rain in his wet hair which slid on Jay’s shoulder. ”
Brave New Day, Maxime Jaz

“The moonlight hungrily devoured every inch of the tall grass and weeds behind the picket fences of near-identical suburban homes but failed to reach through the canopy of the clustered trees lining the unkempt field. ”
Ghost, Are You Out Tonight?, Rue Sparks

Book Review: Ensoulment

Every being is infused with a soul upon their creation, but what would happen if a soul was split?”

Ensoulment by Nick Askew is a genre-bending debut that defies traditional plot tropes and formats, pulling no punches as it blurs the lines between fantasy and reality.

The story begins innocuous enough, with the LA bound Andrew in a relationship with a man he’s not quite sure he loves. At his boyfriend’s debut as a photographer in the high society art scene, an encounter with a mysterious, grinning man that leaves him feeling cold heralds a fantastical journey, one that begins with his death as his boyfriend takes a knee to propose. When he wakes up, he has no memory of his past, and quickly learns that all is not well in the world he has stumbled into.

What follows is a topsy-turvy tale in multiple points of view that spans different genres, timelines and worlds, leaving the reader constantly questioning what’s real along with Andrew and the other main characters. Yet the novel doesn’t feel disjointed or forced despite its lofty goals, making this one of the best executed fantasy and speculative fiction debuts I’ve encountered so far.

The Good

I’m going to be upfront. This book was not at all what I expected, and I mean that in the best possible way. I expected a novel where the main character from our world was whisked away to a world of knights, princesses, and dragons, with LGBT characters for my queer little heart as the cherry on top. 

This book took my expectations out back and smashed it like the printer in Office Space. Ensoulment is as much a science fiction and horror story as it is fantasy, bending into the different genres like a slinky down a stairwell. 

For one, Askew doesn’t shy away from period-appropriate violence and creepy characters that will most likely appear in my nightmares. Horror influences? Check. The fantasy elements are easy to spot, including the ‘save the princess’ plot, the familiarity much needed in the complex twists and turns. The science-fiction elements are sparing at first, like sprinkles on a cupcake, but further into the book, they become more prevalent. Instead of seeming like disparate pieces glued together, Askew pulls off a genre-bending book that made every twist feel like it belonged as a piece of the whole.

The plot is a complicated web rather than a straight line, and we travel through it in bits and pieces. The prose is unencumbered yet vivid, the characters twisted but human (mostly.) The only criticism I have is that the ending was quite abrupt, but considering the length of the novel, as it stands, I can’t imagine a better place to end it within the timeline. Fortunately, the sequel is coming up soon, which means readers won’t have long to wait.

Should You Read It?

As always, please observe the Trigger Warnings at the bottom of the page before reading.

If you’re a fan of books that fit the mold and rely on tried and true plots and characters… this is not your book. 

This is the book for the readers among us who have been there, read that, and want more from their fiction. Fans of speculative fiction will be over the moon to have a book by a new up and coming author to sink their teeth into. If you like being surprised (both in delight and in horror) this book delivers. I won’t give too much away because the twists are that prevalent, but suffice to say, they were never a let down.

As I mentioned before, the ending is somewhat abrupt, so if you’re the type of person who isn’t a fan of cliffhangers, it might be worth waiting for the next book—or even the full trilogy—to be released. It sounds like Askew will be releasing the last of the series within the near future, so you won’t have long to wait.

Spark Level

I rated Ensoulment as spark level Inferno. It’s a book where you never know where the next surprise will come knocking; the only certainty is that it’s going to make you burn.

Trigger Warnings: Torture, Period Typical Violence

Short Story: Ghostie Ghost, Are You Out Tonight?

The moonlight hungrily devoured every inch of the tall grass and weeds behind the picket fences of near-identical suburban homes but failed to reach through the canopy of the clustered trees lining the unkempt field. 

The last standing wooded remains between civilization and farmland, the woods had long been the subject of whispers and warnings; but to the cluster of adolescents in the cusp of night, the danger was only an alluring story.

“Mom’s just being paranoid,” Alanna had said, and that had made sense to Mina and the others. Her mother was well known to be over-protective. “We won’t be long.”

Mina watched the treeline with trepidation, the crickets sounding near-deafening so close.  She warily checked her feet in fear of the small insects crawling along them. “Are you sure this is worth it? This game sounds dumb, and there are mosquitoes everywhere.

“All this grass is making me itchy,” Joseph chimed in, and scratched at his arms as if to prove his point. “I think I’m allergic to something.”

“Are we sure it’s okay we’re out here? It’s kind of scary. I don’t want to get caught by a serial killer or something. I saw something about it on Netflix. Or, my sister did, and she told me about it.” Nick pulled his little brother, Luke, closer to him, though Luke seemed more interested in staring up at the bright night sky that sprawled over them like a blanket of stars.

“Grandma said they played this game when they were kids, so why can’t we? Come on, let’s pick the ghost!”

After a round of ‘eeny meeny miny moe’, Alanna declared Joseph was the ghost, to his annoyance.

“Why do I have to be first?” he asked, but Alanna only shrugged. Mina crinkled her nose, not putting it past Alanna to have found a way to cheat somehow. She never did like Joseph.

“Alright!,” Alanna started, voice echoing in the empty field. She pointed to the ground at her feet. “This is home base. We all close our eyes, and Joseph hides. When we count to thirty, we all open our eyes and yell, ‘Ghostie, ghost, are you out tonight?’ Then we start looking for Joseph. He’s going to try to scare us and tag us. If he tags you, you’re the ghost next! If he comes out and no one gets tag, last one to home base is it. Got it?”

“Wait, where am I supposed to hide? It’s all just grass,” Joseph asked, biting his lip as if he already knew the answer.

Alanna pointed to the treeline, covered in a thick layer of darkness. “In the trees of course! Like you said, there’s nowhere to hide out here.”

“No way!” Joseph crossed his arms, jutting out his lip. “I am not going into those woods. Dad said not to go in there, no way no how. Not even during the day. Who knows what could be in there?”

Alanna’s face split into a challenging smile. “Are you afraid, you big baby?”

“I’m not afraid!” Joseph said, and stomped his foot. 

Mina rolled her eyes and moved between them; she sensed a fight brewing. “Will you two stop it? I’ll be the ghost. We’ll play one round, then we’ll go home. It’s getting late.”

That seemed to do it. Not wanting to be shown up, Joseph muttered under his breath, then said more loudly, “Fine, I’ll be the ghost. Just close your eyes, okay?

The group huddled together at home base, eyes closed and hands covering them, and they all began to count. Mina shut her eyes tight but internally wondered if this was such a good idea. She heard the swishing of grass being moved, then some crackling of wood and the distant moving of tree branches, the crunch of leaves. But there was no cry for help, which set her somewhat at ease.

“… twenty-nine, thirty! Ghostie ghost, are you out tonight?” They all opened their eyes to an empty field, no Joseph in sight. Mina’s heart stuttered in terror at first. She knew the point was for Joseph to hide, but she couldn’t help the fear that something had happened.

“Joseph?” Luke called out, but Alanna leaned down to shush him, finger on her lips.

“Don’t tip him off! We gotta go find him, remember? It’s part of the game.” The child seemed unsure, but he took his brother’s hand and the two walked towards the treeline.

As the others dispersed to start looking, Mina hung back, a prickling feeling on the back of her neck giving her pause. Something felt wrong, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She looked along the treeline. She hoped to see some sort of movement in the trees that would give Joseph away, but there was nothing.

For a moment she thought she saw a light in the trees, about ten feet from where Nick and Luke tentatively poked through some branches, but when she blinked the light was gone. She dismissed it as a trick of the night.

Mina decided to move to the opposite side of Alanna than Nick and Luke, figuring they’d cover more ground that way. She just reached the treeline when she covered a smile with her hand, not wanting to give herself away. Beneath some shrubbery she saw the telltale orange of Joseph’s sneakers that peeked out a few feet into the woods. Gotcha she thought, and consideredhow to warn the others without tipping Joseph off.

When she heard the sound of someone lightly sniffling, she thought of nothing of it. She assumed Luke had become frustrated with the game and the younger child wanted to leave. But when Alanna yelled “Gotcha, you big baby!” and ran away from where Joseph huddled, towards where Mina had seen that mysterious light, alarm bells rang in Mina’s head.

“Alanna, wait,” Mina cried out and ran towards her, but stopped short when Alanna screamed and fell backward onto her bottom.

When Mina reached Alanna, her eyes were wild and dilated, mouth open in a gasp of fear, and she crawled backward the best she could while still on the ground to get away from the treeline. Mina spotted Nick in the distance coming towards them, but she held up her hand in a ‘stop’ motion. Nick pushed Luke behind him and waited.

That left Mina to figure out what was going on. Be brave, she thought to herself. It’s probably nothing but a dead raccoon.

When Mina turned to the woods, she didn’t see anything at first. Alanna must have pulled the shrubbery back to catch who she thought was Joseph, which meant that Mina would have to do the same. Be brave, she repeated to herself.

When she peeled back the branches and leaves, she couldn’t stop the surprised gasp from leaving her lips.

Huddled in a ball, hand curled over his knees, was a little boy, completely transparent from head to toe, glowing with a light aura.

A ghost? Mina thought, though the idea was ridiculous. There’s not really such a thing as ghosts, is there?

She was about to close the branches on the sight again when the child looked up at her, eyes a pale brown, and Mina could see tears streaming down his cheeks. His face was scrunched in complete misery, and he wiped at the tears as he watched her without words.

She moved through the shrubbery before she’d even made the decision to help.

“Why are you crying?” Mina asked as she kneeled onto the ground in front of him. While the treeline hid it, they were in a small cleared area that must have at some point been someone’s hideout. There were rocks that could serve as seats, and a few planks of wood, all weathered and worn down now, but clearly left there on purpose.

The child seemed to wrestle with the answer. He opened his mouth to reply, but the movement behind Mina turned his gaze.

Looking up, Mina saw Joseph and Nick, mouths agape in horror as they took in the scene through the bushes. 

“Mina, get out of there, run!” Joseph grabbed for Mina’s arm, but she pulled it back. Joseph, not expecting the movement, let go and looked at her incredulously.

“He’s not going to hurt us,” she said, though she wasn’t really certain how she knew this. “He’s hurt. I want to help.” She inched forward on her knees, out of the range of Joseph and towards the boy, ignoring Joseph as he hissed out a breath in frustration.

Alanna peeked over Nicks’s shoulder, eyes still wide in terror, and stared straight at the boy, silent for once. Nick frowned at the stoic form of the child as if sizing him up. 

It was Luke that broke the ice, as he snuck into the natural alcove while Nick was distracted and plopped down right next to Mina. He sat cross-legged and leaned against her side, then stuck his thumb right into his mouth to chew on.

Nick sighed and followed suit, tousling Luke’s hair before he sat down next to him on his other side. Joseph hesitated a moment longer before he stood behind Mina. She smiled up at him gratefully, though his face was still pale, freckles stark against the ivory.

“I’m not coming in there,” Alanna said, and paced furiously along the treeline, “You all are crazy if you think I’m going to go in there so some demon can eat our souls or something.”

“Come on, Alanna, we need you,” Mina tried, not wanting her to alert the adults of their situation.

“Pft,” she replied unhelpfully, and Mina started to panic when she heard the receding sound of footsteps through the grass.”

“You called him here, Alanna,” Joseph shouted back. “Don’t you think you owe it to him to hear him out?”

There was a pause. The sound of footsteps. Closer, this time.

“You said I’m a baby. But you’re the one who won’t face what you called. Don’t you owe it to him, to us?”

Mina could just see her head as she paced along the treeline, then her face, then body as she slid through the trees into the clearing.

“Fine,” she said, “but if we get eaten, I’m blaming you, Joseph.”

For his part, the ghost had stopped sniffling and was looking at the group with curiosity. The silence lingered, and Mina wondered if he could talk at all. If he can’t, that’s going to make this difficult, she thought.

“What’s your name?” she asked, figured she’d start small.

The ghost looked down at his hands, clenched in his pant legs. “Victor,” he said near silently so Mina had to strain to hear.

“I’m Mina,” she started, then pointed to her friends each in turn. “This is Nick, Luke, Joseph, and Alanna. I think we called you somehow. Is that what happened?”

He didn’t move his gaze from his hands but shrugged his shoulders. Alanna snorted, and Joseph elbowed her in the ribs.

Let’s try something else then, Mina thought. “Why were you crying, Victor?”

Victor brought his knees closer to his chest, enveloped them in his arms, and rested his head on his knees. He mumbled into them something that Mina couldn’t hear. She leaned closer.

“I’m sorry, Victor, I didn’t hear that. What did you say?”

“I’m afraid,” he said more loudly. “To cross over.” The words had barely left Victor’s lips when he began to sob, shoulders shaking and breath gasped in broken hiccups.

A shiver went down the back of Mina’s neck at the words. The concept of crossing over was something she’d heard of before, and she couldn’t blame him. It sounded terrifying. No wonder he’s so scared.

The sobs were the only thing that broke the melody of crickets as Mina wracked her brain on what to say. An adult would probably know better than a bunch of kids, but then again, adults didn’t always see what was in front of them. They may not be able to see Victor at all.

She was saved from her thoughts when Luke let his thumb fall from his mouth with a pop and spoke. “When I’m scared, Nick holds my hand and I feel better. Maybe he can hold your hand when you cross over.”

Victor emerged from the cocoon of his arms just enough to peek his eyes over them, still sniffling but he locked eyes with Nick. “You would do that?”

Nick for his part seemed to turn green at the thought, but he put his arm around Luke’s shoulder in a sideways hug and nodded at Victor.

“I will too,” Mina chimed in. “You’re always braver when you have friends with you.”

Victor straightened a little at her proclamation and wiped his nose with his arm. “But then I’ll be alone.”

“You won’t be alone,” Joseph said suddenly. “My baby brother is there. You’ll watch over him, won’t you?”

Something in Mina’s heart ached. Joseph hadn’t talked about the loss and was surprised he’d be willing to do so here. But in his eyes, she saw a sort of determination and awe she’d never seen in the easily frightened boy.

“My grandmother too.” Mina was shocked to find it was Alanna who had spoken up, though her voice shook slightly and was hushed even in the quiet of the alcove. “She told me about the game, so you can tell her all about us. And she makes the best pancakes,” and then, with a sniffle, “I miss her. You better be nice to her.”

Victor crossed his legs and bit his lip. He looked at each one of the group in turn. “And I’ll see you all again someday, right?”

Mina’s breath caught, and she clenched her hand into her shorts in fear. Be brave.

“Someday,” she said finally. “Someday we will see you again, yes.”

Victor nodded, and Mina could feel a tension she hadn’t been aware of until that moment fall from her shoulders. Luke jumped up and grabbed Nick by the arm, pulling him to sit next to Victor. Mina followed suit on his other side, and when Nick tentatively held out his hand towards Victor, she did the same.

His hand was cold and seemed as much to glide through her skin as much as hold onto it. This close the aura of light surrounding Victor was blinding when she turned towards him. 

They locked eyes, his the brown of decaying leaves on the forest floor. If she stared into them long enough she thought she might get caught in them, so she looked down to his lips that mouthed words she hadn’t quite caught.

“What?” she asked him, and he replied with a soft smile.

“Thank you.”

She had expected a flash of light, sparks, something like the picture of the northern lights in Alaska her mother had shown her, but instead, Victor simply seemed to dull. As she watched the light surrounding him and his body seemed to fade like a light being dimmed, and then she and Nick we left holding out their hands towards nothing.

There was a sniffling, and at first, Mina thought it had to be Victor, but it was Luke, sniffling next to where he sat next to his brother. Nick let down his hand and hugged his brother tight, pulling Luke’s head to his chest.

Joseph sat down on the forest floor, then flopped back into the leaves, staring up at the canopy. “I can’t believe that just happened.” He shook his head and watched the sky without further comment.

Alanna was silent, digging her toes into the dead leaves and dirt. She seemed despondent.

“Is something wrong, Alanna?’ Mina asked, curious, and not wanting to dissect her own feelings just yet.

She stopped digging her toes in the ground and curled her arms around her waist. “Do you think he’s okay where he is?”

Mina considered her question. There was no way for her to know for sure, but in the end, Victor seemed at peace. But that hadn’t been the real question, had it?

“I think they all will be,” she said finally.

Alanna nodded, then left without a word.

Joseph let out an exaggerated sigh then pulled himself to his feet, dusting leaves off his clothes. “We better get home. Our parents are going to kill us, no matter what Alanna said.”

“Same,” Nick said and dragged Luke up into his arms. “And I’m going to have a hell of a time explaining what happened with Luke to mom. She’s not going to believe a word, but grown-ups never do.”

Mina stood and followed them towards the bushes where they pushed through to the clearing. Before she let the branches shut behind her, closing the alcove from view to the world outside, she took one last look back at what must have been Victor’s hideout when he was alive. Mina wondered if they came back tomorrow if the clearing would still be there at all.

“Be brave, Victor,” she whispered, and let the brush close.

<Back to Short Stories>

Author Interview: Nick Askew

There are a lot of fantasy writers in the world, a lot of them untapped talent that are trying to make their mark in a publishing industry where being an outlier isn’t always to your advantage. There’s a lot of pressure to recreate a success story that came before you while simultaneously not having too risky of a premise. It would have been easy for Nick Askew to tread the same footsteps before him without placing his own mark along the way.

I for one am thankful he hasn’t succumbed to the pressure to abandon his niche. Askew’s fiction is as unfamiliar as it is iconic, a mix of fantasy, science fiction, and horror that is unique to his own stylistic choices. Reading Ensoulment left my mind reeling with the twists and turns, and left me counting down the days for the sequel. You can read my review of the book here, but suffice to say, it’s a wild ride.

I was fortunate that Askew took the time to speak with me about his history and future work. Spoiler alert, there’s more to come from his trilogy, and soon, but in the meantime, here’s a lowdown of what to expect in the future from this trailblazer.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Nick Askew and I grew up in Colorado. I attended the University of Colorado where I earned a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. I worked in related fields, as well as many other odd jobs before discovering my true passion for creative writing.

Tell us about your novel.

My novel is an epic fantasy that takes place in another world after my main character, Andrew, dies in ours. There he has to set out on a quest to find the other half of his soul, all while trying to reunite a princess with her lost prince. To Andrew, it all seems like a familiar fairy tale, but he soon learns that nothing is as it seems and there are dark forces that are working against him to destroy reality itself.

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

My favorite novel is The Fires of Heaven, but the whole Wheel of Time series is my favorite as a whole. It inspired me in so many ways but I loved how he told the story through many different POV’s. It taught me that to have a well-rounded story you have to show it through many different eyes and that even the most insignificant appearing character has a role and a story to be told.

You mention you love the Wheel of Time series because it showcases multiple POVs. Can we expect the same from Ensoulment? If so, what were some of the challenges and advantages of working with multiple POVs?

Yes Ensoulment is being told from several different points of view. The biggest challenge that I encountered in telling my story this way is finding each characters unique voice. I wanted to make sure that each one was distinct and that they stood out from one another, so that just by hearing their voice the reader would easily be able to tell whose POV that chapter was from. 

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

My novel is filled with many different characters, many who happen to belong to the LGBTQ community. I am hoping that readers will be able to see themselves in any of the characters and will come to realize that we are all just people. That we all love, and are sad, and have joy and happiness and that deep down, despite our differences, we are all the same. 

What is different about your novel?

My novel is different in that it is a genre-bending trip that contains many surprises.  On the surface it is a fantasy epic, but it also contains many elements of sci-fi, horror, and romance as well as many twist and turns that I think will catch many readers by surprise.

What are your plans for future novels?

Currently I am working on editing the second book in the Ensoulment Trilogy and about to start writing the third.  The first one comes out on September 28, and I plan on releasing the second at the end of October and the third at the end of November.

What inspires you to write?

I am inspired to write because I want to be a positive voice in the world. Right now there are so many negative things happening and it is such a trying time for everyone. I want to create something in the world that brings joy and happiness to people, and ultimately I want readers to realize that there is more that unites us as people than divides us.

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

I love being able to publish books at my own pace, which can pretty much streamline that process and make it go much faster. On the flip side, the part that I struggle with the most is marketing and advertising. I am naturally a pretty introverted person, so for me to advertise both myself and my book has really been a struggle, though I am making quite the effort on Twitter and other social media platforms.

You mention you enjoy how streamlined self-publishing is but struggle with the promotion. Do you see yourself trying traditional publishing in the future?

I think at some point in the future I would like to try the traditional publishing route. I think a lot of factors would have to line up, and I know that finding an agent can be a difficult task, but it’s definitely something I would be interested in some day. 

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

My greatest struggle has been focusing. Right now the world is in such a terrible place and with everything going on, it is often hard to keep my focus on the creative aspects of my life. I hope to inspire people and show them that despite how destructive things feel right now, that you can create something beautiful and put something joyful out into the world.

You mention that because of the current world situation you’ve had trouble focusing. Is there anything you’ve found helpful that you can share with fellow writers or readers that may be struggling too?

As far as keeping focus during the current environment my advice to other writers would be to just keep your head down as much as possible and just focus on writing, writing and more writing! 

How can we purchase your book?

My book is available for pre-order in ebook format right now on Amazon exclusively.  It will also be available in paperback format on Amazon on my release date of September 28, 2020.

Rue|Lou Prompt Series: “Dead or Alive”

For the 10/1/2020 prompt, Rue submitted “Dead or Alive.”

Below are the prompts submitted for this week. Thank you to all the participants!

Click on the links to read each individual submission.

MASTERLIST:

“It had been ten months since he had walked out the door; to pick up fish and chips for dinner of all things.
He never returned. Vanished without a trace. Became a ghost.”
Untitled, Rebecca Caffery

“Nothing like a quick buck to be made by answering these notes. I open the letter scanning details. Normal dude. Owes someone lots of money. More than an arm and a leg.
What’s it say?” My partner tries to take the note.
But that’s not needed. It’s simple. “Dead or alive.””
SS: Dead or Alive, Cat Hartliebe

““You want some bacon?” Jay hid a small smile, glancing at the tall pale man sitting at their kitchen table, his long fingers tracing the flowers on a worn vinyl tablecloth. Almost puffing with laughter at that cool, not-so-amused stare in Roman’s dark eyes.”
Dead or Alive, Maxime Jaz

“He backed up, eyes wide, not stopping his gait until he hit the wall of doors behind him. The one he recently opened banged shut from the movement. He paid it no mind, however, as he stared at the freshly peeled open corpse on the gurney before him.”
Rotting in Vain, Lily Luchesi

“To Eziel, it felt like cloud-jumping was the closest he’d ever get to flying.”
Cloud Jumper, Rue Sparks

“It’s peaceful.
I turn icy eyes up to the sky, searching the translucent blue for some sign of life. Just once, away to the left, a line of geese flap through the air in a noisy attempt to escape the coming storm. I hope they make it.”
Dead or Alive, Lou Willingham

Flash Fiction: Cloud Jumper

To Eziel, it felt like cloud-jumping was the closest he’d ever get to flying.

He let his body fall off the weathered wooden plankway he’d been running on to fall five feet onto the stone archway below as he braced his legs for the force of his weight. He didn’t miss a moment before he took the curve of the arch at a run, the clouds like a mist around him. He felt the breeze along his cheeks, the adrenaline reaching into his fingertips.

He was cutting it close, but he’d make it. He wasn’t the highest-paid cloudjumper in Aeria City for no reason.

Next was a set of stone merlons along a curtain wall which he hopped between, not breaking his pace as he leapt between embrasures until he got to the end of the crumbling battlement. It was a relic of years gone by, compared to the maze of wooden and steel walkways the clouded city had become as steam power had come into play.

When the stone ran out he jumped the foot between the stone and a metal rod hanging between levels that would ease his descent down the ten feet to the walkway below. He wound around the pole and felt the hair twist across his face with a smile breaking his cheeks wide.

He traversed the curve around a disintegrating stone turret on a timber slab no thicker than his fist, balanced precariously but with practiced ease. He jumped from wooden plank to wooden plank, each taking him a level lower, lower, before he swung a rope across the empty, clouded space between two districts.

The cloud jumpers may be the middle class solution to a mail system that had abandoned them, but that didn’t make the job any less precarious.

Ezekiel wouldn’t have it any other way.

When he made it to his goal, a quaint little home with light green shutters and overgrown vines up the trellis, he gasped in air with deep gulps. He knocked on the door and pulled out the single rolled parchment with a glassy black seal. Urgent, it said, which to him meant little more than an enjoyable run and a larger purse for his trouble. 

Which is why he was surprised when his initial knock bore no response— nor his second, or third, more tentative with every iteration.

“Hello?” he finally called out, and peeked through a darkened window. He saw no signs of life. “A message for ya sir?”

He waited, but heard no response. At this rate, I’ll miss getting any other jobs today. I must deliver this message and return before I lose my chance for another round.

Eziel eased through a thick, warped iron gate to the left of the front door, which protested with a high pitched squeak at his intrusion. Beyond the gate were flowers—more varieties and colors than he even knew existed in Aeria City. They seemed to flourish despite the high altitude and moisture, even the ever-present mist from the cloud cover not diminishing the vividness of their petals.

Leaning forward, he touched a bud of a white and pink snapdragon, only to jump when a voice spoke over his shoulder.

“Beautiful aren’t they?” When he startled, the person chuckled, a quiet crackle that spoke of age. He turned to see an old woman, skin wrinkled around mouth and eyes, smile wide and near toothless, cloud-white hair pulled into a braid on her neck. “I imagine you have something for me young man? Or do you just enjoy the flowers? I wouldn’t blame you, I think we could all use some time to smell the flowers once in a while.”

Eziel didn’t waste a moment, and held the envelope in front of him like an offering. He locked eyes with the woman and nodded his head in acknowledgment. “This message is for you, Ma’am. Urgent.”

The woman stared at the envelope without expression, and Eziel felt awkwardness in the silence, arm still outstretched towards the woman, confusion plain on his face.

Instead of taking the envelope, she smiled and brought her shawl closer around her shoulders. “Would you like some tea, young man?” And with that, she turned away and moved deeper into the garden without further comment.

Eziel dropped his arm, an itch beneath his skin left him to debate on dropping the letter on the nearest table to flee with nary a payment if it meant getting out of this job. It wouldn’t be the first non-compliant job he’d taken, and it wouldn’t be the last. Whatever it was, it was taking far too much time and he was losing money and patience with each passing second.

And yet he found himself moving his feet to follow her into the garden to where she had a porcelain tea set already set up, complete with biscuits and a bowl of sugar.

“I hope you like jasmine tea. It’s a blend a dear friend of mine makes herself, and I daresay it’s the best jasmine tea you will ever taste. Come, sit.” She motioned to an empty wrought iron chair across from her, the back a twisting design that moves along the seat into sturdy straight legs. All this metal is expensive. What could she possibly do for a living?

“I’m sorry ma’am, I really must be going. I must deliver more messages yet today and I cannot be late. Here is your delivery.” Again, he held out the message. Eziel was relieved when this time she took it in shaking, near skeletal hands. She removed a velveteen bag of coin from her robes and placed it in his outstretched hand, and he had to hold back a sigh in his relief.

He turned to leave when her voice stopped him in his tracks. “Are you not going to wait for a reply?”

His heart beat faster. He’d been gearing up for a leisurely run to headquarters, but if he were to do a return trip with another urgent fee, he may not need to go to headquarters at all. But there was something about the woman that put him on edge, it made his teeth clench and he felt dizzy with it.

Still. Double pay was hard to pass up.

“Of course,” he said instead, and returned to her side. He set his hands behind his back to wait patiently.

She watched him for a moment, then motioned again to the seat. “Then sit, young man. You cannot expect an old woman to write with someone standing at attention in front of her. Have some tea, a biscuit, breathe. Surely you can do that.”

He wanted to reply with a snide comment but held it in with a sharp inhale. She wasn’t the first one to get on his nerves and she wouldn’t be the last. Dealing with customers was his least favorite part of the job.

But surely a sip of tea and a biscuit couldn’t hurt? He picked up a soft, crumbly biscuit and brought it to his lips, taking a cautious nibble. It tasted of cinnamon and nutmeg, a subtle spiciness that balanced with the sweetness deliciously.

Feeling the hair on the back of his neck rise he looked up. The woman was staring at him with a gentle smile. “Good?” she asked, and her voice was soft, almost reverent. Eziel felt out of place immediately, and reached for the jasmine tea to calm his nerves.

He took a small sip, the bitter tea in perfect combination to the biscuit, but surely he wouldn’t tell her that. Yet, he would be a good guest at minimum. “It’s good,” he said, not giving further comment.

She nodded, then turned to the missive. She broke the wax seal and then opened the scroll on the table before her.

Eziel couldn’t help the curiosity that ate at him, and peeked at the scroll over his tea cup. Instead of a normal letter in the proper order, the scroll seems to be nonsense, scratches that made no sense to him. A different language maybe? One of the Old Ones? But aren’t those forbidden?

“I know what you’re thinking,” the woman said, though she didn’t look up from where she was studying the scroll. “What does a crazy old woman like me have to do with the Old Ones?”

She looked at him, and Eziel didn’t even try to pretend that he hadn’t been staring. His heart is beating too quickly, it feels like it will explode from his chest. He clenches the handle on his tea cup, and nearly coughs on the remains of the tea in his throat.

“Do you want to know, young man? Will you take my return message?” She doesn’t move her eyes from him as she rolls up the parchment, and he gets the sense that she’s asking him so much more.

“You are a cloudjumper the likes of which has never been seen, I’ve been told. It’s like flying isn’t it? But my dear Eziel, there is nothing like the real thing. The Old Ones knew. Would you like to know what it’s like to really fly?”

How does she know my name?

His hands shook.

His breath quickened.

He set down his tea cup. Straightened in his seat, took a deep gulping breath.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” he began, and though she tried to hide it he can see the disappointment written on her wrinkled face. “I must return to headquarters for today. I cannot deliver your message.”

He stood, turned his face away from those unnatural aquamarine eyes—how had he not noticed before?— walked back through the flourishing garden, the thick iron gate, and onto the brick roadway.

As he walked along the broken tile, at a pace he’d not allowed himself in a long time, he thought that maybe he’d lost something irreplaceable.

<Back to Flash Fiction>

Author Interview: Kathleen Sullivan

There are some parts of life that are unavoidable. To love is to someday lose, as Kathleen Sullivan had to learn the hard way early on. Grief and Self-Care is her offering to loss, a guidebook to self-compassion during one of the hardest experiences we will ever go through as human beings. While Sullivan herself recognizes that the book can’t make the pain go away (nor should it), it can make the time and process gentler on the griever. 

A short book that is strategic in its brevity for the scattered minds of grievers, this book is an important one that shouldn’t be overlooked from your library. But to fully understand why, it’s important to dig deeper into its history.

Thank you to Kathleen Sullivan for ‘sitting down’ with me to chat about her book, her future publications, and the history around this little gem that I’m certain will go on to change lives.

(If you haven’t yet, you can check out my book review of Grief and Self-Care.)

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am originally from Boston, MA. I moved to Pittsburgh, PA a year after my father died in hopes of getting back into the swing of a “normal” life again. As a 28-year-old, I have experienced more grief than the average person does in their lifetime. Instead of letting the depression run my life, I decided to take everything I know & continue to learn to help others through their grief and loss.

Tell us about your book, Grief & Self Care.

Grief & Self Care shares my personal story of loss as well as several proven self-care techniques that can make your journey through grief a little less difficult. I wrote this book because when I was going through the height of my grief after my dad died, I realized there wasn’t much information out there about how to care for yourself through grief. So I put some information out there in hopes that it will make someone else’s journey a little less difficult. It covers topics like journaling, pets, professional help, and even has a section about what not to say to someone who is grieving. 

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

My favorite book is Suicidal by Jesse Bering. This book is about why we kill ourselves. It is a tough read but I highly recommend it. It is brutally honest, eye-opening, and informative. This book has inspired me to always continue to put information out there that answers questions and helps the people who need answers. It also inspires me to write about the taboo because although it may be taboo for one person, someone else may be desperately needing the information you possess. 

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

The main take-away I want readers to get from my book is that it is okay to slow down and take care of yourself. Take all the time YOU need to grieve, not what your company policy says and not what someone else has told you. Grief is unique to everyone, put yourself first. 

I have unfortunately experienced my own grief journey in relation to my late wife, and one of the things that was always explained in grief counseling despite it’s debate are the five stages of grief as noted by Kubler-Ross. Do you have your own opinions formed on those stages, or other described stages (as there are many alternate theories)?

This is such a great question. Not known to too many people, there are actually six stages denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and meaning. I certainly believe that every grieving individual goes through these feelings and emotions but I am not a fan of the word stages. It insinuates that you have to go through them in sequential order and then people start to overthink why they aren’t at a different stage yet. I look at the “stages” as a guide, a person can expect to experience these six things but could possibly only experience a few of them.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was spot on that an individual goes through these feelings however, I think it could have been better described and shown that it varies per person, etc. I personally was struck with anger first, never really touched bargaining, then hit denial and meaning, and then once I found meaning is when I started to accept my father’s loss.

What is different about your book?

Grief and Self-Care is different based on the basis behind the book. It is based solely on self-care techniques to make it through the grieving process naturally. Never once does it suggest medication as a route, as I personally do not find the benefit of medications. The source of succeeding is empowerment and personal strength which is more powerful than any medication out there.

In her book Resilient Grieving by Lucy Hone, she describes the ‘grief reaction’ versus the ‘grief response.’ The reaction being how you react to the grief (sorrow, sadness, depression) and the response being at a later date where you decide what to do with your grief moving forward. How do you feel about this explanation, and how do you think self-care ties into how we can move forward with grief?

I think that Lucky Hone was spot on with her explanation. Self-care is crucial to the grief reaction as well as the grief response in its own way. When the reaction first smacks you in the face, it is imperative that you take a step back from your “normal” life and take the time to process the loss. An example of not doing this would be when someone decides to “throw themselves into work”. That is the opposite of self-care and you are just ignoring the loss. With the grief response, putting self-care at the top of your list of things to do can really make a difference in how the grief affects your life after the loss. Meaning, when you finally go back to work, you can actually focus on your work and get the job done without being heavily distracted.

What are your plans for future books?

I wrote a grief journal that includes writing prompts a couple of weeks after the release of Grief & Self Care. I plan to continue writing about grief in hopes to spread awareness and teach others that it is okay to let yourself feel whatever feelings surround their grief.

What inspires you to write?

My love for helping others is what inspires me to write. I am also an aunt to two beautiful kids back home in Boston and I want them to learn to grow up in a world that is a little bit kinder than the one we live in now. I grew up in a family that values philanthropy & that is a large part of who I am today. I live to help make other peoples lives a little bit easier.

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

The most enjoyable thing about publishing is seeing my work actually help people. Even if it is constructive criticism I value it immensely. The biggest struggle with publishing my book is marketing it, however I have touched into my creative side a little bit more and have some exciting things up my sleeve to try.

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

Grief is a large topic, there are thousands of different things you can talk about when it comes to grief. My greatest struggle writing is narrowing it down and making my books short enough that it isn’t a struggle to read. In today’s society people are always on the move and moving at faster speeds than ever before, the last thing I want is someone to not purchase my book because it is too long for them to read, they don’t have enough “time”. So I do my best to organize my thoughts and leave the “filler” out. I would rather have a bunch of shorter books highly concentrated on the specific topic than a large book that has a lot of “stuff” in it. In order to overcome this, I suggest a lot of organizing, brainstorming and outlining throughout the whole writing process.

How can we purchase your book?

You can purchase Grief and Self-Care on Amazon. It is available in paperback and kindle.

 

Book Review: Grief and Self-Care

When a loved one is taken from us, It can feel like the world has crumbled to dust. Grief and Self-Care doesn’t try to make sense of the rubble; it keeps you breathing until the dust settles to daylight.

Grief and Self-Care by Kathleen Sullivan is a succinct and insightful guide for how to effectively take care of your needs in the midst of grief, whether it be grief from the loss of a loved one, a divorce, onset of disability, or other debilitating change. During a pandemic that has cost us over 960 thousand lives worldwide, there has never been a more appropriate time for a book like Sullivan has created.

The most debilitating emotional pain we will ever face as human beings is the loss of someone we cherish. The first time you lose someone that close to you, especially if you’re young and those around you have yet to suffer any similar loss, it can feel like you’re walking blindly through a labyrinth. While Sullivan’s book doesn’t aim to tackle all aspects of grief, what it does is make one particular aspect clear and concise: self-care

In this book Sullivan covers self-care techniques like writing, hobbies, non-competitive exercise, professional help, and even a section for loved ones on what not to say to someone who’s grieving.  Options are laid out in chapters to try, each with an explanation, examples from personal experience, and references to outside resources should you like to learn more.

I found Sullivan’s writing to be very accessible, which is paramount when it comes to a book that may be read in a time of crisis. I appreciated that Sullivan highlights quotes from different books from other accredited authors on grief, which can be found in the References section, giving even more credence to the techniques.

The Good

As you can read more about in our interview, Sullivan’s goal is to not overwhelm the reader, which I find to be a fantastic strategy. While for myself I soaked up books like a sponge a few months after my loss, when my grief first began I didn’t have the concentration for reading long form. This is a fairly common response, and one reason why I’m fascinated to see Sullivan’s future works as they tackle other aspects of grief.

I also think the longevity of these techniques is important. While techniques for stopping panic attacks and fighting through sleepless nights may have been helpful (and perhaps subjects for future publications) the techniques outlined in the chapters can instead become habitual. They’re long-form self-care, not just short-term. Grief often comes in waves that the griever can’t predict; having set routines means getting through the hard days through sheer force of established habits rather than drowning in the debris.

Most of all, there’s a balance of authority and authenticity in this book that is often missing from grief related publications. Half the time the grief books I’ve read are from professionals that can be too clinical for many readers. The other half the time they’re memoirs from those affected from a heavy loss, and the authority of their words just isn’t present. 

Sullivan is a crisis counselor at The Crisis Text Line, works, with a non-profit for suicide prevention and awareness, and is pursuing her masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She has the authority, and yet she comes across as quite down-to-earth and empathetic. She’s also dealt with enough grief personally that I get the feeling that even more than a professional, she’s first someone who’s been there and wants to help.

Should You Read It?

If you or someone you love is going through a loss, then I give you a resounding ‘yes.’ In fact, I have already gifted it to a friend of mine in my own grief group that is at a stage of their journey where they needed to re-approach their self-care routine. This is a book where I put my money where my mouth is.

The thing with grief and loss is that no one wants to deal with it. It’s painful. It’s challenging. This isn’t a book I ever want to have to suggest to anyone because it means they’re suffering. But if you’re in that space and you’re drowning, this book can be a lifeline. Not for everyone—there is certainly a matter of taste and timing with grief books as I’ve experienced myself. But when you’re approaching climbing a mountain every tool is worth a chance.

The one caveat I have to this book that I would feel remiss if I did not mention, is that Sullivan and I disagree on the merits of medication (to read about her views on medication, see our interview.) Though certainly not all people going through a loss should rely on medication, I think in certain cases there are benefits to medication prescribed by a Psychiatrist. This is especially true if the patient is a danger to themselves or others, or is dealing with unmanageable insomnia. I’ve seen medication do wonders for some, and I’ve seen it do nothing for others. It depends fully on the individual, and how their own grief manifests.

Spark Level

I rated Grief and Self-Care as spark level Torch. It’s an informative self-care book that grievers can carry like a guiding light through the labyrinth of loss to help keep them moving forward when all else is veiled in darkness.

Trigger Warnings: Death and loss.