Friday, October 23, 2020

D&D's Worth for a Writer

 Happy Friday, everyone! So, everyone probably has figured out by now that I am a pretty big fan of D&D and tabletop roleplaying games in general. I play in two games, I run another, and I'm in the process of writing two campaigns, which between them get roughly the same amount of time, energy, and excitement as my actual novels. Some of my best memories of the last couple of years come from D&D sessions, and weekly D&D games have helped me keep some of my college friendships not only alive but thriving. So, yeah. Whatever its reputation, D&D can bring about a lot of good things.

But I'm not here to talk about the pros of D&D for people in general (though I totally will write that post if anyone wants to read it). I'm here to talk about how D&D can help writers specifically. And I'm not just looking at people who write and run a full homebrewed campaign; these points apply to players and DMs alike, whether they're working with a pre-written campaign and world or a completely original story and storyworld. Some will apply more to certain situations, but I think they're all pretty universal.

D&D's Worth for a Writer

  1. It teaches you how to hold your stories with a loose hand. For many writers, it can be difficult to see past your particular plans for your story, whether it's a full outline you've built or the way you think a character is or a scene you really want to have happen. We get caught up on these things and, as a result, get stuck because we didn't see the better option. But if there is one truly universal constant in D&D, it's that you can never get too attached to a particular way you want a story to go. Sometimes things will work out how you planned. But there are a lot of factors to consider — the DM, the (other) players, your own ability to speak, and, of course, the dice — and sometimes . . . it doesn't happen. Your players take out the long-term boss after only two encounters. Your DM throws a whole flight of blue dragons at a city you thought was safe. A fellow player turns on the party or decides his character is going to have a mental breakdown. The story you thought you were going to tell isn't going to work, so you have to be willing to improvise — but the story as a whole ends up better for it. The same is true in writing. Maybe the story isn't going to go the way you thought it was going to go. Or maybe your beta readers say that scene you love needs to go. It's not fun. But a willingness to improvise, to hold your story loosely, will bring a better result.
  2. It helps you learn how to tell a story with others. This is related to my previous point, but still somewhat different. D&D is a game in which four or five different people are trying to tell at least that many stories at the same time and interwoven with one another. You have to learn how to share the spotlight and how to build off each other. You have to learn each others' strengths and your own strengths and play off of each other. And these are the same skills you need (in a more intense form) if you want to do any form of collaborative writing, whether that's coauthoring a book, sharing a storyworld, or any other type of collaborative formalized storytelling.
  3. It's a good testing ground for new ideas. This one does apply more to DMs than players, since it's hard for players to bring something in for the short term and then drop it if it doesn't work out. But if you have that freedom (or if you don't mind doing some long-term testing), D&D can be a great way to see how people react to a particular character, dynamic, concept, or so on. You just have to keep in mind that your creations may not come off like you imagined them in your head . . . and they're always at the mercy of the dice. (And that is why a particular NPC, who was supposed to be thoroughly epic and mysterious, instead became the subject of many a joke . . . but it's fine. He works better in written form.)
  4. It allows you to tell stories you can't tell in a traditional form. I am never one to disparage the written word. But some stories, characters, and concepts can be better explored in other media (which is also one of the big reasons I think certain types of anime, graphic novels, and webcomics are super cool . . . but that's a topic for another post). You can take the story of a D&D campaign and write it down as a book, and it may or may not work depending on how you go about it and how much editing you do. But, in many cases, you couldn't have written that story first because you wouldn't have thought to write it the way it happened. The funny thing is, though, that telling those stories helps you write the other stories better because it gives you another perspective and thoughtspace to work from.
  5. It teaches you a lot about worldbuilding. This is the most DM-centric point here. Worldbuilding is key in any fantasy story, but it's especially important in D&D. Why? Because your players need to, in a certain sense, live in the world you're building, more so than readers need to live in a book's storyworld. And you have both less time to introduce setting elements than you would in a book (after all, as a DM, you can only talk for so long before your players start getting annoyed) and fewer opportunities to reinforce those elements. So, you have to make the most of what space you can use, which means making sure you can attach important details to things people remember — which usually means backstory or people. It's a challenge. But once you've done it for a while, or once you watch a DM do it well for a while, you can pick up ways to give your written worldbuilding a little more oomph.

Do you play D&D, or are you interested in playing D&D? What other benefits do you think roleplaying might have for writers? Or, if you're not into roleplaying, what's something you've learned about writing from a not-explicitly-writing hobby? Please tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 16, 2020

Autumnal Anytime Reads

Hey'a, all! So, a few years ago, I did a Friday 5s post that I really enjoyed: Summer Anytime Reads, a collection of books (and some bonus recommendations) that I felt were really summertime books. I've been meaning to do a followup for . . . well, years, but never really got around to it (and never really had enough books to suit any one season). However, I have finally changed that fact! Some of these are selected because they actually relate to some aspect of autumn, some because they take place in the fall, and some just . . . y'know. They have the right vibe. So, without further ado, here are your Autumnal Anytime Reads!

Autumnal Anytime Reads

An Enchantment of Ravens cover

  1. An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson. I mean, the transition from summer to autumn is literally a plot point here, and Rook is the autumn prince, so . . . kind of an obvious choice? But I would also say that Enchantment effectively captures the feel of fall as well, from the descriptions and colors to the emphasis on making and creating (fall usually feels very crafty to me, though maybe that's just because of Halloween) to the juxtaposition of life and death and the idea of things dying to make way for new life.
    If you liked An Enchantment of Ravens, try: Fairest Son by H.S.J. Williams (for fae magic and fairy tale vibes) or The Dark King's Curse by Wyn Estelle Owens (for seaonal fae and fabulous autumnal rulers).

  2. Plenilune by Jennifer Freitag. I almost put this one as a readalike for An Enchantment of Ravens, but then I decided that it deserved its own spot. Though this book spans multiple seasons, it carries a very classic autumnal vibe all the way through, especially in the author's very rich language and descriptions. But where Enchantment is very early autumn, Plenilune is late autumn, when skies are grey more days than not and the encroaching greys and browns make the last bits of color stand out all the more brightly and fires in the fireplace are appreciated for more than just the aesthetic, if that makes sense. And, once again, it has that feel of death bringing about new growth and life. Plus, this book has a very classic, slower-moving, spiced-cider kind of feel that really seems very autumnal.
    If you liked Plenilune, try: Pendragon's Heir by Suzannah Rowntree (for kingdom intrigue and classic feel). I seriously cannot think of another readalike for this at the moment, but if you have any ideas, feel free to leave them in comments.

  3. The Dragons in Our Midst series by Bryan Davis. This series takes place primarily in fall (all except for book 2, which is midwinter and feels like it). In addition, Books 1 and 3 are very effective examples of two kinds of fall-related stories. School stories often seem very autumnal (mostly because of "back to school"), and a lot of the conflicts in Book 1 begin in or relate to that. And in Book 3, of course, the whole story takes place right around Halloween and takes advantage of the legends surrounding that holiday — specifically, that Halloween is the night on which the borders between realms and dimensions are the thinnest.   
    If you liked The Dragons in Our Midst, try:
    The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson (for allegory and colorful characters) or The Ilyon Chronicles by Jaye L. Knight (for strong Christian characters and dragons).

  4. The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud. Speaking of Halloween, we can't go through autumn reads without discussing some deliciously creepy or scary tales! The Screaming Staircase has just the right amount of spine-chilling creepiness without becoming horror for the sake of horror, and it leans heavily on traditional lore while adding its own twists. It also has an excellent mystery, and I'd say that fall and winter are an excellent time for mysteries. For the record, I'd actually say the whole series fits the vibe of fall read fairly well; the first book just happens to be the one I like best.
    If you liked The Screaming Staircase, try: The Crocket and Crane series by Kyle Robert Shultz (for spooky legends and, especially after Book 1, plenty of creepiness, plus snarky friendships) or Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy (for lore-based fantasy mystery).

  5. The Book of Names by D. Barkley Briggs. We end this list with a series that I think effectively bridges fall and winter. The Book of Names starts in November, and it feels like a November/early December sort of book. Part of that is the atmosphere and the book's reliance on Welsh and Arthurian Legend (which I often associate with fall). The other part of it, though, is the aspect of the Nameless and the darkening of the world. Though I love fall and the change in seasons, I often find that late fall and winter are times of the year when I tend to feel much more tired and discouraged than usual, and I think The Book of Names and the rest of the Karac Tor series reflects that struggle in certain ways.
    If you liked The Book of Names, try: The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander (for shared basis in Welsh mythology) or the Beyonders series by Brandon Mull, especially books 2 and 3 (for unconventional portal fantasy and portal adventures that leave a mark).

What are your favorite autumnal reads? Are there any of my picks that you especially agree or disagree with? Please tell me in the comments! Also, many thanks to my sister for helping me come up with readalikes when I was stuck on some of these.
Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 9, 2020

Reasons to Love the Wingfeather Saga (Part the Second)

Hey'a, everyone! Guess who's actually going to do this in a timely fashion this time around? As you quite possibly know, Andrew Peterson and Waterbrook Press have been re-releasing the Wingfeather Saga with all new covers and artwork, and the second two books — The Monster in the Hollows and Warden and the Wolf King — just came out this past Tuesday. Accordingly, I have Part the Second of my non-exhaustive list of reasons to love (and read, and reread, and reread again) the Wingfeather Saga, this time focusing primarily on the third and fourth book.

Reasons to Love the Wingfeather Saga (Part the Second)

  1. It has its own take on the "after the adventure ends" story. Technically, the adventure has not ended in Monster in the Hollows, but it does deal with the same sort of thing: after you've trekked across the country with foes close behind, after you've faced battles and betrayals, after you've lost friends, after you've found yourself trapped in the worst places, what happens when you try to fit back in to some kind of normal? What does making a new life actually look like? I love stories that deal with this, and Monster is no exception.
  2. It pays attention to those who aren't necessarily the heroes, but who get caught up in their swirl. Arguably my favorite part of Monster in the Hollows isn't the main, Wingfeather-centric storyline, but rather a subplot that deals with Sara Cobbler. Why? Because the Wingfeather trio is Destined. They will do great things whether they intend to or not because others will put them in a place to do that by virtue of their birth. Sara is not, in a narrative sense, Destined. But she got caught up in the swirl of someone who was, ever so briefly, and she chose to keep acting heroically after he was gone. She could've stood by and waited for help to come, but she didn't. She acted. And then, in Warden, we see her, again, not as the hero, but as the one who supports the heroes and tends to those left hurting by evil and the battles against evil.
  3. I said this in the last post, but it bears repeating: It is very, very much a family-focused tale. We have the Wingfeather family, pulling together in the face of both new and old challenges, figuring out how to love even when there's resentment and pain in the way. But we also have found and broken family stories back in Skree that are just as beautiful. So many of the choices in this book are driven by the decision to love a family member well, and I think that's fabulous.
  4. If you read the first and second books, there are revelations you don't want to miss. I can't say a lot more than that because, you know, spoilers. But there are answers to your questions (even some questions you didn't know you had), and they're pretty awesome.
  5. It's a story of brokenness and restoration, and I think we can all use that. I don't really have much to add to this point either, to be honest. I know there are a lot of stories of brokenness and restoration out there, especially among Christian fiction. But the Wingfeather Saga is one of the better ones.

How excited are you for the new versions of the Wingfeather Saga books? What do you love about the series? If you haven't read it yet, have I convinced you to try it yet? Please tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 2, 2020

September 2020 Doings!

 Well, here we are. Solidly into fall, and three-quarters of the way through 2020. As always, there's some Doings to report, so let's go.

Writing!

  • I AM BASICALLY ALMOST DONE WITH BLOOD IN THE SOIL/EARTH!
  • (It only took me two years and two months to get to that point . . .)
  • But yeah. BitS/E and my two D&D campaigns have been my main focuses this month, writing-wise, and I've been really pushing to get to the end of Blood in the Soil/Earth. And I am ALMOST THERE. By which I mean I have two, maybe two and a half scenes left, and I'll likely finish for real sometime in the next few days.
  • Also, I wrote 2.3K words on BitS/E on Wednesday because I'd gotten to the really exciting part of the climax in which various characters come into their own and I didn't want to stop until all the thoughts in my head were on paper. And then I wrote another 1.3K words on one of my D&D campaigns. I don't think I've written that many words in one day in months. (Not since I wrote the end of The Midnight Show back on June 8, to be exact.)
  • D&D campaigns are also going well, for those curious. I have all three paths outlined for the campaign I'm actively running, and everyone seems to be having fun running around and exploring a new city and preparing to hunt pirates. I also have a pretty good idea, I think, of which of the three paths my players are going to choose. (If nothing else, I have a very good idea of which path they're probably not going to choose. Though, y'know, they very well could surprise me.)
  • As far as the campaign I'm just writing goes, progress has slowed down a little, but it's fun too. It's a very different story and encounter structure than that of the Defenders of Serys, simultaneously more and less linear. I'm also having to figure out how to combine puzzles (of a sort, at least) with combat, which is an interesting challenge. (I'm also homebrewing a bunch of stuff, mainly monsters and magic items, and that's fun too.)
  • And, of course, we had the Silmaril Awards this month! I got to host the Most Magnificent Dragon category, and I'm happy to say that it went off more or less without a hitch. If you didn't get to read this year's awards, you should definitely go check them out, see who won, and enjoy all the fabulous ceremonies. You can find the complete list of ceremonies, in order, here on the website.

Reading!

  • This was a much lighter reading month than last month, despite my high hopes of doing lots of pre-Silmaril Awards rereading. (I think that's because I tried to force it instead of going with what I was really in the mood for. So that was a mistake.)
  • I only read one and two halves actual books this month. The first half was finishing Crimson Bound, which I actually started last month. I stand by my initial assessment of the book: it had potential, but it really didn't measure up to what I wanted it to be. Instead of maintaining the intrigue and myth, it got bogged down in romance, angst, and drama.
  • The other one and a half were my reread of the second two Wingfeather Saga books: The Monster in the Hollows and The Warden and the Wolf King. Both were, of course, good, though Monster took me much longer than it should have. (Again: I don't think I was in the mood for it most of the time I was reading it.) I did gain a new appreciation for Sara Cobbler's subplot, though, so that's lovely. Technically I'm still reading Warden, but I'm reasonably close to done at this point.
  • The rest of this month's reads? All graphic novels and manga. I have to admit, it was really fun to explore this medium more (and appreciate all the lovely artwork).
  • The three actual graphic novels were all based off D&D podcasts: two off The Adventure Zone, and one off the first Critical Role campaign. I definitely liked the Critical Role one (Vox Machina: Origins Volume 1) better, but that may be because I'm already familiar with (and attached to) the players and DM behind the characters and story, so I had a better idea what to expect in terms of style. (I also might've had overly high expectations for TAZ, since I'm used to Critical Role and my personal experiences with D&D, and those seem to have a very different tone than TAZ.)
  • I also started reading two manga series: The Seven Deadly Sins (because I have a friend who likes the anime) and Delicious in Dungeon (because it sounded fun). I'm not terribly crazy about the former, but I'm really enjoying Delicious in Dungeon, or at least the first three volumes of it. It really is a cool perspective on dungeon-crawling-style adventures and RPG worlds, plus it's very focused on food and friendship. So, y'know, several of my favorite things in one story.
  • Finally, I have restarted my Lord of the Rings reread! It is going . . . slowly. I'm once again trying to journal the reread, and I think I might need to not do that — I sometimes don't read it even when I have time for a chapter because I don't want to have to write stuff about it afterward. But at the same time, I started the journaling thing and now I feel like I should finish it. Gah.
  • As a quick update on my reading goals:
    • I'm currently at 87 out of 99 books overall, which means I'm ahead of schedule. And once I finish Warden, I have a lot of quicker reads coming up, so I'm confident I can finish on time.
    • I'm still at nine non-speculative fiction books out of my goal of twelve, so I need to get busy with that. Part of the problem may be that I haven't been in the headspace to read Lewis or Chesterton's nonfiction works like I intended to at one point. Still, that's only about a book a month to hit my goal, which should be more than manageable.
    • As for my final reading goal, I have hit my goal of twelve books written before I was born, thanks to The Hobbit and Beauty. Very few of the books I ended up counting towards this goal were ones I planned to read at the start of the year, but y'know? I shouldn't be surprised. I'm very much a mood reader, after all.

Watching!

  • So, I finally convinced my family to give Firefly a try! And they didn't hate it! So that's good!
  • (Not that I thought they would hate it, since I wouldn't have suggested it if I did. But there's always that little bit of concern, y'know?)
  • Anyway. It was really fun to get to watch some of the show again. We just did the first double-episode, but people seemed open to watching more, and I'm hopeful we'll do that soon.
  • On the downside, I forgot how many awkward scenes there are with Inara, even in just the first episode. Gah. I would ask if there's a point at which watching those kinds of scenes with your parents in the room becomes non-awkward, but I find them awkward even when the family isn't there. So. Yeah. (Plus, I'm caught in the "Well, if I bring it up, then it's more awkward, but if I don't somehow show that I am Not Actually Enjoying This, they'll think I'm ok with it, which I'm not, what do I do, panic" cycle. So that's a thing.)
  • We also watched Clue, which was fun! None of us had seen it before, but I was pretty sure I remembered that my roommate liked it, and it was on Prime as part of a promotion, so we decided to give it a try. And I do think it was a good choice; I enjoyed the humor, and I'm almost always down for a good murder mystery.
  • Besides that, I'm still slowly working my way through Critical Role. I am quite liking Caduceus, much more so than I expected. And Caleb remains my favorite character. It's also fun watching this and knowing comparatively little about D&D tactics, so while people in the comments of the videos are getting mad about how this character should've done that instead of what they actually did, I'm just watching and being like "Yeah, that seems like a thing this character would do" (or sometimes "Yeah, that's what I would do as a player if I had a cool new ability I wanted to try out").

Life!

  • As you can see from the picture: I got a new bookshelf! It's huge, and it's really meant more for an office or a library or something, but I absolutely do not care in the slightest. It is immense and beautiful and may allow me to not need another shelf until whenever I eventually move out. And I know I am not maximizing the space on it as well as I probably could, but it's fine. I can rearrange again in November or December if I really want to.
  • On a less cheerful note: something that I technically knew but which hadn't really registered for the last four years is that cooler weather in an older house with an actual yard means Every Weekend Is Yardwork. Or deck work. Or otherwise outdoor work. We haven't even started cutting up fallen trees or raking leaves yet, and it's already a thing. Not that I'm complaining, especially since I've gotten off easy in terms of the amount of work I, personally, have had to do. (There are many benefits to Saturday afternoon D&D sessions, as it turns out.) It's just . . . still kind of a lot. And I am not an outdoors person or a lifting-heavy-things person in the slightest. (I'm also not a fan of anything that interferes with my meal schedule — yes, I'm basically a taller-than-average hobbit, how'd you guess?)
  • Aside from that, we have, of course, the continuing saga of the job search. I've had a few interviews, though most of them went nowhere. I did have one yesterday that seemed very promising, though? So maybe the saga is almost over? If not, well, there's something hopefully happening next month that may let me cast my net a little wider (and expand my skill portfolio even further).
  • I'm also back to working on my cloak, hoping to have it done in time for Halloween stuff. All I have left is the hood and some trim/edging/stabilization stuff, so that doesn't seem like an unreasonable goal.
  • Aaaand I tried a new sourdough recipe, and I have very mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I severely dislike actually making it. It requires mixing very sticky dough by hand (literally; you're supposed to stick your hands in it to mix it rather than use a stand mixer or even a wooden spoon), and has to be tended every half hour for several hours out of the day, and all the measurements are in metric by weight, which — look, fine, maybe it's more accurate or whatever, but, (1) my kitchen scale is old, so all my weight measurements are almost certainly off, (2) I can't even measure some of the smaller quantities, (3) it's a lot of hassle, and (4) I do not care. I just want to make and eat bread. On that note and on the other hand, the bread is delicious and way lighter and fluffier than the bread I usually make. So that's a struggle. I'm hoping to try to combine the recipes sometime to get a version that gives maximum yumminess for minimal effort, but I haven't had time due to the Every Weekend is Yardwork thing. (I may manage today, though, if all goes to my plan.)

October Plans

  • I AM GOING TO FINISH BLOOD IN THE SOIL/EARTH. I am also going to officially decide on a name. Hopefully.
  • Once that's done, I'll take a short noveling break and then I may or may not start writing my next book. I'd like to. I have a Midnight Snow sequel in mind, and I think it'll be fun if I can get the details worked out. (I do need to plan stuff well before I start writing, though, because I want — and need — this to be another short project like TMS.)
  • I also get to start thinking about Halloween stuff! I signed up for my church's drive-through Trunk or Treat, so now I need to figure out how to decorate the back of my car in a fantasy-ish manner. Or possibly steampunk-ish, but I'm leaning towards fantasy because that gives me a wider variety of costume options to work with and will allow me to adapt more to whatever the weather happens to be.
  • As far as reading goes, I'm going to continue my LOTR reread and my ventures into manga and graphic novels, and I'd like to do some of the rereading that I didn't end up doing in September. Plus, there's the Return of the Thief release, which I am SO PSYCHED FOR.

How was your September? Any exciting plans for October? How do you feel about manga and graphic novels? How would you go about doing a fantasy-themed trunk for Trunk or Treat? Please tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading!

Saturday, September 19, 2020

THE MIDNIGHT SHOW Paperbacks Now Available!

 

Hey'a, all! I'm happy to announce that The Midnight Show is now available in paperback! Thanks, everyone, for your patience as I sorted things out with KDP and formatting requirements. You can purchase your copy of the book here on Amazon.

Also, signed bookplates WILL be available as promised! Today through Tuesday, September 22, after you purchase The Midnight Show in paperback, you can claim your signed bookplate by filling out this Google form with your address and proof of purchase.
 
Thanks again! I hope you enjoy the book, and if you do, make sure to leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads!

Friday, September 18, 2020

Fall 2020 Reads (Ft. MUCH EXCITEMENT!)

Hello, everyone! Fall is somehow upon us — which keeps throwing me off, to be honest. Even with my sister back at Cedarville, a significant part of me still feels like it's supposed to be June or July or something. But, on the upside, we have a new season's worth of books to get excited for! (Never mind that I'm at least a year behind on reading in general . . . it's fine.) And some of this fall's releases are ones I've been looking forward to for a very long time indeed.

Fall 2020 Reads

1. Dear Hero by Hope Bolinger and Alyssa Roat (September 2020). Superheroes and and a story told, somewhat like Illuminae, primarily through messages between the characters? Sign me up! Also, the concept — that there is, essentially, a hero/villain nemesis site that works like a dating app — sounds absolutely golden.

2. The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (September 1). Mystery! Puzzles! Strange inheritances! Probably murder! Secrets! I am a fan, as you can tell. I'm 90% hoping that this will be a properly puzzle-and-riddle-filled book. Odds are that it'll end up disproportionately focused on romance, but, y'know. A girl can dream.

3. Legendborn by Tracy Deonn (September 15). Urban fantasy and King Arthur vibes? Storms yes; hand it over! (Also: a little bit of mystery/detective vibe? Maybe? This may just be wishful thinking, I don't know.) I haven't read a good King Arthur-based story in a while; let's hope this one delivers.

4. Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (October 6). Ahhhhhh I've been waiting so long for this! Or I feel like I have, haha. I'm so sad that the series is ending, but at the same time, I'm excited to return to this world and these characters after so long, especially since it's going to be another Eugenides-focused novel. (I love A Conspiracy of Kings and Thick as Thieves, but Gen-centric stories are my favorite.)

5. The Monster in the Hollows and The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson (October 6, rerelease). The rerelease of these got pushed back a long while because of at least one of the many trials and terrors of 2020 (I can't remember which), but that's ok — it just means more time to get excited. That said, I do have eARCs of these, and I'm currently rereading Monster in the Hollows, and I love the art in these new editions. I know I said that about the new editions of the first two, but it really is one of my favorite things.

6. Swamp Thing: Twin Branches by Maggie Stiefvater (October 13). I think this is a graphic novel? Which I have recently gotten back into reading, so that's cool. Apparently it's also related to some DC Comics super-something, which . . . I do not care about. It sounds like a good story, and I know Maggie Stiefvater does beautiful-magical-and-creepy very well indeed, and that is what I care about.


7. The Merchant of Menace by Kendra E. Ardnek (October 19). So, I forgot this when I originally made this list. Oops. I blame the fact that it didn't show up in the proper section of my Goodreads TBR list. Anyway. I am currently alpha-reading this book, and I can confirm that it's pretty fun. It takes a special author to combine Cinderella, The Merchant of Venice, and The Odyssey and make it work, but Kendra manages. (Kendra also has a promo going on where if you preorder the ebook and let her know, you have a chance to win a paperback copy, if she gets ten preorders. So you should go do that.) 

8. Among the Beasts and Briars by Ashley Poston (October 20). Ok, the description doesn't say fey explicitly . . . but I'm hearing fey. Like, properly magical and wild and wondrous fey. And the description also implies there's a magical fox in the book, which — what more could I ask for? The only thing better than a magical (probably faerie) fox is a magical (faerie) cat. (We all know who I'm talking about here, right?)

9. Magic Dark and Strange by Kelly Powell (October 27). It's a historical fantasy mystery with a heavy dose of delicious creepiness; how could I resist? Even if the lead character's power does sound a bit sketch, the story sounds too good to pass up. The few reviews that are currently up also imply that the romance is pretty low-key, so that's a bonus.

10. These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong (November 17). I'm not sure if this is historical fantasy or historical magical realism, but either way, it sounds pretty great. A Romeo and Juliet retelling in 1920s Shanghai? With monsters and madness and murder (mystery?) mayhem? I'm here for it.

11. Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson (November 17). IT'S ALMOST HERE! For a given defintion of almost. I am so excited to get back to Kaladin and Shallan and Adolin and Lift and the rest. And, yes, I know they're posting the first part of the book chapter-by-chapter on Tor.com, and no, I have not been reading it. I want to wait until it comes out, then devour it all at once. Or, you know, in a few sittings, since it's a big book. In any case, I am SO EXCITED.

What books are you looking forward to this fall? Did I miss any on my list? Please tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Tattered Slippers Blog Tour: Spotlight on Vicia!

 

Hello, everyone! So, the Tattered Slippers blog tour technically ended, what, a week ago? But due to some issues on the author's end, A Time of Mourning and Dancing got pushed back, and the associated blog posts got pushed back even further. Still, it's never too late to share about good books, so . . . have a character spotlight.

About . . .

A Time of Mourning and Dancing

The Floramancy Archives #1
Once, Toph knew his place in the world. As a respected captain in a victorious army, he had triumph and promotion to look forward to. But crippling injury stole his future and war stole his friend. Belonging nowhere and with nothing left to lose, Toph accepts a challenge that could end his life: discover a secret the princesses will do anything to hide.

Vicia is a princess, but powerless and in mourning. Her beloved brothers were killed in a war she’s beginning to question. Ever since, she and her eleven sisters have become mere treasure for her stepfather the king to use to barter. A chance meeting with a frightened faery gave a wild hope that they may recover what they’ve lost. But it will cost a dance—and a dangerous secret.

Soldier and princess must learn to rely on each other if they are to survive curses, slighted fae, and an enchanted lost land. Something dark and powerful lurks in the mists beyond the dance floor, conducting the steps… and time is running out.

Find it on: Amazon || Goodreads

 

Abigail Falanga

Abigail Falanga may be found in New Mexico creating magic in many ways – with fabric, food, paper, music, and especially with words! She’s loved fantasy ever since playing out epic adventures of swords, fairies, and monsters with her siblings, and loved sci-fi since her dad’s stories around the dinner table. Abigail has published nearly two dozen flash fiction stories across a variety of genres, having discovered that extra-short stories are a wonderful way to explore ideas without getting distracted by – Squirrel! But fantasy and fairytales are her first and truest loves. She's launching "The Floramancy Archives" - dark and epic fantasy reimaginings of classic tales, filled with plant-magic and portals, curses and fae.

Find her online at: Website || Goodreads || Facebook || Twitter || Instagram || Amazon 

The Tattered Slippers

The Tattered Slippers are six retellings of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairytale, each one fantastical and magical. You don't want to miss any of them! You can learn more about the books and find the full tour schedule on the tour page.

The Tattered Slippers are the result of the 2019 Arista Challenge. The Arista Challenge is hosted by Kendra E. Ardnek; it invites fairy tale authors to come together in community as they work on unique retellings of a selected fairy tale.

Character Spotlight: Vicia

Princess Vicia—born the eldest daughter of Queen Flora and King Oliver, coregents of the kingdom of Merimor—is a beautiful woman in her late twenties, with long dark hair and forest-green eyes. Destined for leadership of her country or in alliance with another. Fiercely loving older sister, pampered and sheltered princess, intelligent and capable but often under the mask of being just another silly girl.

Vicia was given the same name as her faerie godmother, Sweetpea, but decided that the Latin form was more dignified and went with that from about the age of ten onwards. As the eldest of five full sisters, she always had a sense of responsibility and maturity.

Although the culture of Merimor and the surrounding kingdoms expects a male leader on the throne and only men go to war, Vicia was groomed from an early age to rule competently and wield a sword. After all, she has no full brothers and was therefore next in line to the throne. She was trained in all the ways of ruling a country, just as a prince would have been, and is as well-versed in swordplay and politics as she is in embroidery and music.

She is haughty and clever, sure of herself and strong, and prepared to put down prelates and princes in conversation. Sheltered by her upbringing in the palace, she has little acquainted with the ways of commoners and often looks down on those she thinks her inferiors.

But she is also kind, generous, gracious, and has strong and good principles. She may not understand the ways of ordinary folk, but she has compassion on them. And she dearly loves her sisters and is always willing to have fun with them.

Vicia has known tragedy from an early age. Her father died when she was young, and King Victor, the man her mother remarried, was often cruel. She gained brothers and sisters with the remarriage, however, and grew to love them as dearly as her own siblings. And then her mother died and her stepfather took control of Merimor, remarrying an ambitious woman named Varella whose sole aim in life is now to marry off her stepdaughters.

 It was always assumed that Vicia would marry her eldest stepbrother, Forest, and rule the country after the death of her stepfather.

Until her dear brothers were killed at the end of a long war.

Vicia does a very good job of hiding her sadness and struggles. While it appears at first that she and her sisters are thoughtlessly wearing their slippers to shreds, and heartlessly not telling why even though their secret has already cost the lives of six men, the truth is far more complicated than a simple dance. The princesses are playing a dangerous and urgently important game.

She has been overlooked and put aside her whole life, trapped by wartime politics and the expectations of her cruel stepparents. But the time has come for her to take control of the destiny of her kingdom, and herself.

~~~

Are you excited to meet Vicia? Please tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading!

 

Friday, September 4, 2020

August 2020 Doings!

 Hello, everyone! First things first: today is the last day of nominations for the Silmaril Awards! If you haven't yet nominated and seconded all your favorite characters, make sure you go do that ASAP! And now, since that's been said: let's get on with the Doings!

Writing!

  • As you probably noticed if you were anywhere near my blog or my social media last week: I published a book! Which is very exciting! The Midnight Show, a Jazz-Age-inspired retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, is now available in Kindle format on Amazon. It's also in Kindle Unlimited, so yeah. You should check it out. We're still working on the paperback, but as I said on Wednesday, I'm doing my best to get it out as soon as possible.
  • Unsurprisingly, I spent a very solid chunk of the month doing final proofs and edits on The Midnight Show, formatting files, and prepping blog posts for the tour. In related news: I now know how to format ebooks in InDesign. Whoooo! (This doesn't sound like a big deal, probably. Trust me when I say that it feels like a big deal to me.)
  • I've also been working on my D&D campaign, though that's slowed down a bit because I can only do limited planning until I know what my players decide at an upcoming juncture. In the meantime, I've started writing a second campaign. This one is loosely inspired by one of my favorite video games and is a lot more dungeon-crawl-y than Defenders of Serys, but I think it'll be fun. And I mentioned it to some of my players before our last D&D session, and they seemed enthusiastic about the idea.

 Reading!

  • This was another pretty solid reading month. About half of what I read this month, was, unsurprisingly, a Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling or other fairy tale retelling. I read all the Tattered Slippers books, of course, and enjoyed all of them. (If you want my thoughts on them, just scroll back to last week.) And because I was on a fairy tale kick, I reread the Princess of the Midnight Ball trilogy, which was actually just as good as I remembered it being.
  • Also in the realm of retellings, though not fairy-tale ones, were Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett (a reread) and, to a certain degree, Bloodlust and Bonnets, a graphic novel by Emily McGovern that kind of sends-up both Austen and Romantic literature. Wyrd Sisters was excellent, and better on the reread than it was the first time around. Bloodlust and Bonnets was . . . not my favorite thing. In hindsight, I don't know why I thought I would enjoy it that much, since the author's webcomics tend to be hit-or-miss for me. But it did sound like it could have been funny. Oh well. Lessons learned.
  • (I later soothed my desire for an actually-good graphic novel by rereading Nimona, which was excellent.)
  • The last few books of the month were all somewhat mixed bags. Whisper of the Tide was the sequel to Song of the Current, and it alternated between being enjoyably nautical/piratical and frustratingly fraught with communication issues. The ending was good. The middle . . . well, there was a point where I was halfway tempted to just not finish. Caraval was an interesting concept with a lot of potential, but it had too much romantic and relational angst and too little of the actual Caraval. And Crimson Bound is what I'm currently reading; I think it has potential, but I'm not crazy about it thus far.

Watching!

  • I'm still primarily watching Critical Role, though I've slowed down a little. This is partially because I'm busy and having a harder time fitting it in and partially because Travis and Laura are gone on baby leave and I knew from spoilers that another one of my favorite characters was . . . also about to not be around anymore. And so I kind of procrastinated a bunch on a particular episode. But I got through it! And now I'm continuing to move along through the show! And soon Travis and Laura will be back, so that'll be great!
  • I also started watching both Cowboy Bebop and My Hero Academia, sort of. By that, I mean that I watched the first three episodes of Cowboy Bebop and the first five or six episodes of My Hero Academia while my family was taking my sister back to college and then after that they had to compete with (1) Critical Role and (2) actual responsibilities for my attention and it hasn't exactly been winning. Hopefully, I will change that soon! Hopefully!
  • It is really weird watching anime after having not watched it in so long. I forgot how little tends to happen in an episode. And also how characters have a tendency to be so dramatic about so much stuff. I'm not saying that in a bad way, just in a "this is a thing that happens" way.
  • I'm also having a really hard time figuring out what people's names are in My Hero Academia (with a few exceptions), but that's mostly because I keep trying to match up names I've seen associated with fanart with names used in the show, and I think a bunch of people use last names with fanart? Though I could be wrong?
  • They're both good shows, though. I enjoyed them. And I look forward to watching more when I have time.
  • Other than that, I watched a few movies with the family. On the recommendation of Jenelle Schmidt, I went ahead and gave the newer Casino Royale a chance, and I have to say, I liked it much, much better than Goldfinger. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it was my favorite of the actual movies I saw this month. My second favorite was WarGames, an older sci-fi movie. I don't know that I'd watch it again unless someone I was with really wanted to, but it involved hacking and artificial intelligence in a fairly interesting way. Also, it was reasonably accurate hacking in terms of how it was done? So that was kind of fun, even if the premise was rather out there. At the bottom of my list in terms of how much I liked them were Spellbound (cool premise, but the female lead frustrated me) and Hello, Dolly! (which was just generally not my thing, and I didn't buy any but one of the four different romantic couples). I can see why other people would like both of them. They just aren't my thing.

Life!

  • So, my sister went back to college. I didn't, for obvious reasons. This is the first semester-start in four years that I haven't made the trek up to Cedarville. It felt . . . kind of weird? But at the same time, I'm so glad that I don't have to deal with things like having chapel outside or the massive crowds in the dining hall or any of that.
  • I also had the house to myself for a weekend, which was pretty nice. I didn't have internet for the weekend because the hotspot went with the rest of my family, but I did a bunch of gaming (I played through the entirety of The Silent Age and Portal and started Portal 2) and watched stuff on the actual TV rather than my tablet or laptop and listened to music with no headphones. It was nice. (Also: can you tell I'm an introvert?)
  • I would like to add that The Silent Age hits different when you play it during a pandemic. To reveal minimal spoilers, it involves traveling back and forth from the future to prevent a plague from causing the end of the world. Technically, the future year you're traveling to is 2012. Had the developers made it 2021, well, I probably would've been like "Yeah, that seems reasonable."
  • And because I'm on a gaming kick at the moment, I also restarted Undertale, which I technically started playing back in March or April and have been continuing on and off since. But I got stuck on the spider fight, so I decided to restart so I could get an item from the beginning of the game that will hopefully either shorten the fight or let me bypass it entirely. Hopefully. Fingers crossed. (I'm playing the True Pacifist mode, for anyone curious. So that makes it more difficult.)
  • On a more serious note, I'm still working on finding a job beyond self-published author. The Tor.com internship fell through, sadly — not that I really expected it to work out. I did manage to get a contract/freelance position doing copywriting for Study.com, which is nice — the writing isn't hard, and the pay isn't bad, and obviously, it's pretty flexible. But I am still looking for something else. To that end, I had a job interview with one company yesterday — my first actual in-person interview, believe it or not. As of the writing of this post, I'm waiting to find out what will and won't come of that.
  • In the meantime, I've gone back to trying to teach myself to draw. It's going fairly well, even though I'm basically having to relearn everything I figured out when I first attempted this two summers ago. I've gotten back to the point where I can draw a face without thinking it looks bad, and occasionally it actually looks reasonably good.

September Plans

  • With The Midnight Show (mostly) published, I have three major things on my plate:
    1. Continue job-hunting, assuming that I don't get offered the position I interviewed for. (I'm operating under this assumption until corrected; it's less likely to end in disappointment. For all that I try to be an optimist, I can't deny the advantages of pessimism, and I'm unfortunately good at it.)
    2. Keep working on and hopefully finish the first draft of Blood in the Soil/Earth. I know I've hit either endgame or something close to it, and I hope that I'll get back to the scenes where it's easier to write 500 words than 100 soon — you know what I mean, when the words are flowing freely enough that you don't want to stop for fear of losing your train of thought. The trouble is that I don't know how many of those scenes I have left; I know for sure that I have at least three days and three nights of narrative left. (Also, before anyone gets excited . . . this first draft is very rough and is going to require at least one full rewrite. It may require two.)
    3. Figure out for sure if I'm writing a Frosted Roses story (I think I am, and I posted about my main idea in the group) and, if I am, hopefully get started on it. If I end up on a roll with Blood in the Soil/Earth, though, this will get pushed back.
  • Outside of those three things, I'm going to continue writing my D&D campaigns. I think I'll be able to go back to working on Defenders of Serys as my main fairly soon, but we'll see. In the meantime, I'll continue having fun with writing the new campaign. It really is a nice change of pace.
  • On the reading front, I think a lot of my reading plans are going to be defined by who ends up moving on to the voting round of the Silmaril Awards. After all, I want to make sure I'm well-prepared to write the finalists well in the awards ceremony post! At the moment, it looks like I'm going to get to reread some of my favorite books and some books I've been meaning to reread or read for a while, so that's very exciting. I'll also be rereading the third and fourth Wingfeather books, because those release in October! Huzzah!
  • But, yeah. Unless I get a job, it'll probably just be more of the same old same old, with a little bonus urgency to hurry up and finish the hood of the cloak I'm making.

How was your August? Any exciting plans for September? How do you feel about graphic novels? And have you watched either My Hero Academia or Cowboy Bebop? If so, what did you think of them? And if you've watched MHA, can you maybe help me out with my confusion about names? Please tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

An Update on The Midnight Show Paperback

 

Hello, all! I wanted to take a minute to update y'all on the status of The Midnight Show paperback release and the accompanying bookplate promo. As you may recall, on the original release day, I said that due to some issues with Amazon, the book might be delayed until that afternoon. However, it didn't appear that afternoon, nor the day after, nor any day since. On Monday, I said that I hoped it would be out that day and that I was extending the promo through Wednesday. It's now Wednesday, and still no paperback.

The reason for this delay?

  • On Friday, Amazon rejected the manuscript, saying that I needed to increase the page size to allow for the bleed. I did so, figuring that the book would be delayed by a bit, but not a full day (as I said).
  • Saturday, rather than getting a "Your book is approved" email, I received a message identical to the one I received on Friday. Very weird, said I, but I increased the bleed sizes again and sent it back.
  • After getting no emails at all from Amazon for over three days, I called the KDP helpline yesterday afternoon.
  • The KDP representative I talked to didn't know why my book was being rejected or why I wasn't hearing back from them either, but she said she'd have a technical team look into it — a process that could take twenty-four to forty-eight hours.
  • I then received another identical email about page sizes about fifteen minutes after I hung up. I did not act on this one; I'm giving the technical team time to act in hopes that they actually will look into it.

What does this mean regarding the release?

  1. The paperback will be released eventually. When? At this point — and I say this in the most literal sense — God only knows. I will do my best to make it as soon as possible.
  2. The paperback bookplate promo is, for obvious reasons, postponed. It will happen for real when the paperback actually releases.
  3. I will let you all know as soon as the paperback is released.

Thank you all so much for your patience and understanding. I truly appreciate your support.

P.S. Have you nominated your favorite characters for the Silmaril Awards yet? If not, go do that!

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Tattered Slippers Tour: THE MIDNIGHT SHOW RELEASE DAY! Feat. The Pros and Cons of Writing in the Jazz Age!

 

Hello, everyone! It's official: The Midnight Show is out in the world! I'm so excited that I get to share this book with y'all. As a reminder, if you purchase the book in paperback format today through the 31st and send a proof of purchase to sarahpennington.author(at)gmail.com, I'll send you a signed bookplate to go in the book!

(Side note: due to some technical issues — aka KDP not telling me that I needed larger bleeds on my pages until after I'd ordered two separate proof copies, what the pumpernickle — there may be a slight delay on paperback availability. They should be up by the end of today, if they aren't already. Thanks for your patience.)

Now, you know, stories don't come out of nowhere. For everything anyone ever writes, there's at least of a bit of a journey to get there. And today, I thought I'd share some of the story behind The Midnight Show in a somewhat . . . unusual . . . way. But first, a bit about the book, for those who are just getting here!

About . . .

The Midnight Show

This mystery is the case of his dreams — and her nightmares.

By day, Dayo Temitrope is a swinging singer, an up-and-coming star with a shining career ahead of her. By night, she’s . . . well, she’s not sure, but whatever she does leaves her every morning with sore feet and worn-out shoes. And after six months, she’s had enough.

Enter Bastian Dennell, a private investigator just trying to get by. When Dayo hires him to find out where she goes at night, he’s sure it’s his big break: his chance to establish himself and get the funds to pay off his family’s debt. Plus, he gets to work with his favorite singer, even if she isn’t exactly what he expected. What could be better?

But first he has to solve the case — which means navigating a tangled web of strange dreams, fair folk schemes, and show business. It will take all Bastian’s wits, along with the shining talents of Dayo herself, to figure out the truth before the curtains close for good on Dayo’s career.

A jazz-age-inspired twist on the Twelve Dancing Princesses from the author of Blood in the Snow.

Find it on: Amazon || Goodreads

The Tattered Slippers

The Tattered Slippers are six retellings of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairytale, each one fantastical and magical. You don't want to miss any of them! You can learn more about the books and find the full tour schedule on the tour page.

The Tattered Slippers are the result of the 2019 Arista Challenge. The Arista Challenge is hosted by Kendra E. Ardnek; it invites fairy tale authors to come together in community as they work on unique retellings of a selected fairy tale.

Pros and Cons of Writing in the Jazz Age

So there I was, halfway through May, with Hadestown in my headphones, a few characters niggling at the back of my mind, and an unexpected surplus of time on my hands. The Tattered Slippers group reveal was creeping ever closer, and Kendra was keeping the Love and Memory alpha chat buzzing with cryptic comments about her excitement for the lineup and teasing me with the promise that she’d accept a late entry if I sent one in. I’d planned to sign on for the release, but Blood in the Soil (or possibly Blood in the Earth) was fighting me on every page, and I knew — had known for months — that I had no chance to whip it into shape by the release. I thought that was that.

But there were those characters — ! A private investigator with a heart of gold who tried to hide his feelings under a callously professional demeanor and a jazz singer whose sunny smiles masked an ever-growing desire to just be left alone when she was off the stage. They’d been born as alternate universe versions of major characters from another Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling, but they’d become their own people while I wasn’t looking. And they wouldn’t leave me alone! 

There was clearly nothing else for it. I had to write the story. I set a goal for myself: I’d make the most detailed outline I’d made in years, then write like mad to have the book finished by the beginning of June. It was crazy — but it was a novella, nothing more. Perhaps even a novelette. And, anyway, compared to ancient Asia, how hard could it be to write a Jazz Age-inspired story? 

Headphones on. Writing music playing. I was about to find out the answer.

Pro: The soundtrack is an absolute bop.

I’m used to hard-line definition between writing music and for-fun music. Writing music is instrumentals: Lindesey Stirling, Two Steps from Hell, Brunuhville, Brandon Fiechter, soundtracks, the works. If it’s not instrumentals, it’s Kalafina or Korean folk and the lyrics are all in a language I don’t know two words in. It’s inspiring. It’s non-distracting. It also all sounds the same after a while. 

Now? I had jazz. I had swing. I had electro-swing. It was, as I said, an absolute bop and a much-needed change of pace. However, there was also an unexpected downside . . .

Con: You will have “Swinging on a Star” and “I Found My Yellow Basket” stuck in your head for weeks solid, and nothing will dislodge them.

Despite Ella Fitzgerald's refusal to stop singing in the back of my head, though, I made good progress. I had my story well outlined, my characters profiled, my world built. I had written enough of the story that I could secure a last-minute entry into the Tattered Slippers group, and my characters were, astonishingly enough, cooperating. I’d also discovered another advantage of my chosen era.

Pro: Research is so astonishingly easy.

I’d spent the last year writing in an ancient Asia-inspired world, where getting the answer to any historically-based worldbuilding question was almost guaranteed to take significant effort wading through irrelevant search results, dubious information, and articles meant for scholars. Now? Abundant reliable information; original sources written in a language I knew; photos. It was blessedly easy. I wanted to know what kind of shoes women usually wore? When Band-Aids or an equivalent were invented? What types of appetizers or hors d'oeuvres might be served at fancy restaurants? Easy as a search and a few clicks. Of course, with such ease comes a certain danger that you might have guessed by now . . .

Con: There was too much information — so much that it was easy to get distracted.

Also known as:

Con: At one point, trying to figure out what my characters would eat for breakfast turned into a good twenty minutes researching the history of Grape-Nuts cereal . . . and then didn’t use most of what I learned.

(Fun fact: Grape-Nuts are partially responsible for the existence of the Andy Griffith show. I am not making this up and am still pretty amazed and amused by this fact. You can read about it here.)

Despite periodic research distractions, though, the writing continued to go astonishingly well. My characters were mostly cooperating, and while I did have a bit of a change of plans — enough so that I missed my June 1 deadline — it was manageable. By June 7, I had a full draft ready to send to both Kendra and betas. Also by this time, I’d developed a hearty appreciation for another benefit of my chosen era:

Pro: Finally, familiar technology!

For possibly the first time in my writing career, I could assume that many of the modern conveniences available to me would also be available to my characters. They had cars. They had telephones. They had flashlights. They had refrigerators — some of them, anyway. They had out-of-season fruit. It was magnificent. Except, of course, for one problem . . .

Con: I kept forgetting that said technology existed. 

(And that is the other reason why poor Bastian walks almost everywhere and forgets his camera that one time. I forgot he had another option. Sorry, Bastian.)

In between the end of the story were several rounds of edits, but those were actually easy compared to the madness that was editing Mechanical Heart. And now we come to today: story finished and published and available for all of y’all to read and enjoy. And the question arises: are the pros enough? Will I be back to this Jazz Age world?

Absotively. (And hopefully, you’ll come with me when I return.)

Are you excited for The Midnight Show? Do you think you would want to write a Jazz Age-inspired novel? What other time period do you think would be fun? Please tell me in the comments! And don't forget to check out the rest of the tour stops!
Thanks for reading!

August 29 Tour Stops

Dreams and Dragons: Pros and Cons of Writing in the Jazz Age
 
Five Reasons to Read:
Knitted by God's Plan
 

Interviews:

Guest Posts:
Cobonham: A Day in the Life of Dayo
Rachel Rossano's Words: A Day in the Life of Bastian
Abby's Blog: Like, But Not the Same
 
Character Spotlights:
 
Reviews: