Media Monday: Fairy tale noir

Media MondayThe books: The Twisted Files by Sonya M. Black

The music: “Tourniquet” by Rasputina

The Twisted Files are, as the title of this post suggests, fairy tale noir: retellings of classic fairy tales, set in a seedy world of murder and mayhem, that take the form of crimes that need to be solved by a gumshoe and his assistant who don’t always follow the rules.

The first book, The Snow White Files, introduces us to PI Brendan Hunter as he’s hired by a clan of dwarves to find a missing girl. He finds himself in the middle of a political power struggle between dwarves, sirens, and a wicked witch.

The second book, The Riding Hood Files, takes us further into this world as Brendan’s assistant, Stasia Weatherly, finds herself in a power struggle of her own – one funded by synthetic pixie dust and perpetuated by shifters.

Taken together, they’re a fast-paced and refreshing look at fairy tales every reader is familiar with, but with a twist in that the plot of the fairy tale, and it’s characters, are used to advance a very modern, arcing storyline. Black does a great job with her dark, criminal-mastermind updates.

The accompanying song, “Tourniquet,” is probably more recognizable in its original form by Marilyn Manson, but this twist makes it somehow darker, by adding a whimsical flair that makes the lyrics that much creepier.


Friday Five: Stephanie Villegas

friday fiveToday’s Friday Five focus is Stephanie Villegas, author of young adult and thriller short stories.

Stephanie Villegas is an author and freelance writer living in sunny Southern California. She graduated with a degree in Religious Studies from UCSD, where she developed a deep interest in cultural beliefs and diversity in literature. Among many other obsessions, she can’t get enough of Film Noir, vigilante comic books, and mechanical typewriters.

In her latest short story, “The Secrets I Carry,” secrets are difficult for any eleven-year-old child to keep. But in Nazi Germany, Gertrude’s family secret is a matter of life and death. When she and her best friend stumble upon something unusual in the woods, their accidental involvement could mean danger for them both. Must she reveal one secret to keep another? Or is it one more secret for this young woman to carry?

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stephanie villegas1. What author has influenced your writing style/subject the most and why?

That’s a tough one. I’d much rather give a list than a single author, but if I had to choose, I’d probably say Gillian Flynn. She steps outside the box and has revitalized an interest in Noir (with the rise of so-called “Domestic Noir”). She took a male-dominated genre, dusted it off, and crafted something new out of it. All the while, her stories are full of micro-tension, a strong voice, complex characters, and plot twists. Too many writers are afraid to write a gritty woman and Flynn definitely delivers.

2. Thinking about the stuff you’ve written, who’s your favorite character and why?

So far, my favorite character is Roger from “Author of Death”, which I hope to release next year. He’s broody and cynical, but also a hopeless romantic. Writing in his voice has been a ton of fun, and it has taken me to darker places than I ever anticipated when I initially began the project.

3. What do you want your readers to take away from your works?

The first thing anyone should take away from my works is that being different (whether that is mental illness, a physical disability, or being introverted) is not shameful.

Beyond that, my readers should probably take away that often there isn’t a happy ending for everyone because characters, like all humans, have hopes and interests that are often at odds with one another. Mercy in the eyes of one character may be considered a lack of justice in the eyes of another. I don’t mean to say that an ending like Hamlet or Othello should be normative, just that there is more than one way to end a story and not every one needs a scenic ride into the sunset.

4. What’s your current writing project and what are your writing plans for the near future?

I am currently trying to finish my Thriller novel “Author of Death” about Roger, a 1950’s pulp-fiction writer turned stalker. Things get all kinds of tangled for him when an unstable ex-lover, the police, and an organized crime syndicate become involved. Suddenly, he’s the primary suspect for a crime he didn’t commit and his only alibi is the crime he did.

In addition to that, I’m working on a Science Fiction Young Adult novella (possibly a short series), which so far I’ve only referred to as “Vatos Versus Robots”. As you may have guessed, this one is very different than anything else I’ve ever written so its been a really fun challenge and learning experience. The part I’ve been working on is about Diego, former robotics engineer, who has returned to his home planet (Nuevo Juarez) following his father’s death. When his little brother is murdered by the local cartel’s robots, life for Diego’s family changes drastically.

5. What do you want your tombstone to say?

I’m quite sarcastic so, if I could have my say, I’d want something memorable like “It’s dark in here.” Of course, I’d always be open to something along the lines of “Feel free to sit and read with me.”

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The Secrets I Carry” is currently available on Amazon.

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The world is falling apart – be a pessoptimist

fistI was at a talk today about race in education, specifically focused on the role that white teachers play in regard to black boys, and the presenter ended by urging us to be “pessoptimistic.”

It’s like optimism, but you don’t just hope things get better – you’re out there doing something and demanding results.

According to the Urban Dictionary, it’s

A philosophy that encourages forward-thinking optimism with an educated acceptance of a basic level of pessimism. Optimism’s fault is it’s naivete, pessimism’s it’s blind jadedness. We live on Earth and are human. There is, was and will be good and bad. Shit happens, dreams come true.

As I write this, American headlines are detailing our 18th school shooting this year, with at least 16 dead. As an educator, as a parent, as a human being – this breaks my heart, especially because it’ll happen tomorrow, or next week, and we’ll see the same response: handwringing, thoughts and prayers, and nothing.

When I go to my job, I work with kids who have been beaten and raped and witnessed attempted murders and all kinds of horrible things that no one, not even adults but especially not kids, should endure.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed, especially when everywhere you look there’s negativity and it seems like people with power are going out of their way to be cruel to the least among us, only to protect and enrich themselves.

Today, however, was a reminder that we CAN do something.

We can become pessoptimists, and demand accountability from our leaders.

We can become pessoptimists, and step up as community leaders that will be accountable to our communities.

We can become pessoptimists, and talk to the people who are most affected and learn what they want us and need us to do.

I’m not saying bad things won’t still happen. They will. There will always be apathy and greed and a million other reasons why someone can walk into a school and kill 16 people, or beat their children, or systemically deny others basic human rights.

Change won’t happen overnight, but it also won’t happen at all if we don’t make an effort to do something, anything, to speak up and fix the problems around us.

Will you join me in being a pessoptimist? What will you do to make things better, not worse?

Friday Five: Vila Gingerich

friday fiveToday’s Friday Five focus is Vila Gingerich, author of children’s short stories, novels, and creative nonfiction/personal essays.

Vila Gingerich grew up in Mennonite communities across the Midwest. She spent seven years doing volunteer work in Romania and now lives on fifty acres in Missouri with her husband, cats, and an overgrown veggie garden. She was a winner of the 2014 Highlights for Children fiction contest and her work has been published in Highlights for Children and Purpose magazines. Vila teaches sixth through eighth grades in a private Mennonite school. She tells her students that everyone has a special talent, good books take you places, and sometimes it’s okay to add on your fingers.

Growing Toward the Sun follows Celeste, a ten-year-old wannabe detective whose giant imagination often gets her in trouble. When a thief targets her Mennonite community, her desire to solve the case clashes with the beliefs of her peace-loving people and with her promise to behave more responsibly.

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growing toward the sun cover1. Why do you write in the genre you listed above?

Growing up, I seldom got to read books about Plain kids like me. As an adult, I determined to do my part to change that for young Amish and Mennonite readers. Today I write for my old self, as well as for my nephews, nieces, and students. I know my audience but I also know their parents, and the guidelines they set for their child’s reading material. Somewhere along the way I realized I also want to reach readers outside my target audience, and I hope my coming-of-age tale will appeal to a wide variety of readers.

2. Thinking about the stuff you’ve written, who’s your favorite character and why?

Celeste is me so I love her, faults and all. I also love the real people I write about in my personal essays, especially the Romanians I learned to know during my time in their wonderful country.

3. Is there a certain type of scene that’s harder for you to write than others? How do you deal with this?

I’m awful at starting scenes much too early, meandering into the action at a snail’s speed. Since I am incapable of realizing this myself, I enlist the aid of honest, smart people to point it out to me.

4. If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?

Time travel. Duh. Victorian England. America before Europeans arrived. Egypt of the Pharaohs. Biblical Jerusalem. Incan civilizations.

5. What literary character are you most like and why?

I always wanted to be Jo March, but I’ve given up on that one. I’m not nearly tomboyish enough. So I’ll go with Emily of New Moon. Teacher, writer, reader, lover of cats, holder of grudges, lover of sunshine and shadows.

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Growing Toward the Sun is currently available through Amazon.

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Friday Five: CJ Anderson

friday fiveToday’s Friday Five focus is CJ Anderson, author of young adult sci-fi/fantasy novels.

CJ Anderson is a teacher and author who has a slightly obsessed curiosity for the fantastical. When she isn’t assiduously performing these roles, switching back-and-forth whilst balanced precariously on the back of a Nimbus 2000, you can find her on alien worlds stalking hot demigods, nephilim, and elves from the cockpit of an X-wing. CJ and her husband, Superman, live northwest of District 12 with their superhero children and their cat-dragons.

Awakened, book 1 of her Gods and Guardians series, is non-stop action and romance with a syfy twist! Hair raising, skin prickling, and explainable is the only way to describe the connection Alaya and Dru experience when they first see each other. As Alayna is drawn into Dru’s world, she learns of the Guardians—others like her who have special abilities, whose genetics can be traced back to the Gods. . .except both the Gods and the Guardians are actually extraterrestrials, and . . . THEY AREN’T THE ONLY ONES WHO HAVE FOUND THEIR WAY TO EARTH. “Aliens? Yep, they exist. LOTS of them. Bad ones, good ones … I’ve now seen two bad ones up-close-and-personal; and as for the good ones, well, I’ve met three. No, wait – FOUR, if you count me, because I.AM.PART.FRAKKING.ALIEN!”

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CJ Anderson1. What genre do you currently read most and why?

I mostly read YA science fiction and fantasy. I love the not-everyday-life situations in this genre and the thought provoking concepts and possibilities that pop-up in these books. The books I read usually have a strong character as well and the plot is character driven. I’ve always found it easier to relate to characters in books than to real people. So, I suppose that in a way, I like reading these books because I get to hang out with my “best friends.”

2. Where do your inspiration and ideas for your stories come from?

I’ll just be going about my day and all of the sudden a “what if” question or idea will pop into my head. I also teach at the elementary level and often times my students will share their “what if” ideas. I don’t remember exactly when this particular insight occurred, but it was a merger of “what if instead of ‘science fiction becomes reality’, it is ‘reality becomes science fiction?’” I was teaching Greek Mythology at the time and I shared this idea with one of my 5th grade classes. This led to a whole conversation about the TV show “Ancient Aliens” currently on H2, which I had not yet seen. I started watching the series and my plot grew from there.

3. What are some of your favorite words and why?

nyctophilia – (n.) love of darkness or night. Finding relaxation or comfort in the darkness.

I’ve always been a night owl and when I discovered the word nyctophilia I though, wow, that’s totally me!

collywobbles – (n.) butterflies in stomach.

I mean, this one is just fun to say!

4. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever researched for your works or biggest/most out-of-the-ordinary thing you’ve done while researching?

Well … I do write SciFi so I’ve researched some very bizarre things. To me, they are ordinary because I think about these types of things all the time, but I did feel a bit awkward researching Zero Point Energy (ZPE) and weapons. I mean, you never know who is out there watching your Google searches, and if they don’t know I’m an author …

5. What’s the worst job you’ve ever had and why? What was the best thing about that job and why?

Years and years ago I worked in a warehouse where returns were delivered from all the Walmart locations across the U.S. Being a creative, this was torture for me. Not to mention, much of the stuff was just thrown out. Not recycled, not repurposed, not sent back to the vendor. Because it was cheaper than any other option, perfectly good merchandise, trashed! if you were like 5 seconds late or had to leave for an emergency it was treated as like the worst thing in the world by management. One night, a lady who had been working in my department was having chest pains and was made to believe if she left for the hospital she would be fired. So, she stayed. When I came in to work the next afternoon, we all found out she had died! That was the absolute worst. The best thing about this job was the bull shit, (and I’ve had other similar jobs – but this was the worst). In all cases, the bull shit is what motivated me to keep trudging through life until I met my goals, first becoming a teacher and later a writer. Without all the BS I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I want to encourage my students and readers to think for themselves, to question everything, and above all things, always do the right thing EVEN if it breaks a rule!

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Awakened is currently available through Amazon.

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2017 Book Roundup

2017goodreadslogoOne of my goals for 2017 was to read 100 books. I read 56, so just over halfway to the goal.

This list only includes books I finished. There are dozens that I started but didn’t finish (often not even the first chapter) either because they were poorly edited or didn’t hold my interest. I also didn’t include textbooks or journals that I read for school.

Here’s a breakdown of what I read:

  • 21 (38%) were either kids or young adult; the rest were adult. 10 of those were Percy Jackson books that I read with my son, and a handful more were YA books I read before taking them into work (I currently work with teens/tweens who love to read).
  • 2 (4%) were nonfiction and the rest were fiction.
  • 4 (7%) were single short stories, and 3 (5%) were short story anthologies.
  • I know the authors of 20 (36%) of the books.
  • 14 (25%) were in a series where I read at least 1 other book in the same series. 4 more were the first books in the series and the next book hasn’t been released yet, while 5 more were the first books in the series and I wasn’t impressed enough to track the next books down (or even to see if they’re out yet).
  • 4 (7%) were from Amazon’s first read program, where they offer a free ebook to Prime members.
  • 5 (8%) were translated from another language or from a non-Western country. 3 of those 5 were from the Amazon Crossings imprint, and 2 were ones I picked up in India.
  • 3 (5%) were ones I’d read previously.

Best books I read in 2017:

  • The Dirt and Stars series, books 1 and 2, by Kevin Killiany. They’re YA, about the US space program, and set in an alternative near future. I was expecting fluffy sci-fi, but instead they’re a great look at how racism permeates society and how individuals can fight back. I’m really looking forward to book 3.
  • The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers by Mike Masilamani was a beautiful tale of life inside a Sri Lankan refugee camp, told from the POV of a boy too young to realize just how horrible most of humanity can be.
  • Blood and Circuses by Aliya Smyth is a wonderfully researched vampire tale set in ancient Rome.
  • Palm Trees in the Snow by Luz Gabás tells of one family’s experiences with colonization in 1950’s Equatorial Guinea.

If you challenged yourself to read a set number of books in 2017, how did you end up doing?  What were your favorites?  Anything you particularly disliked?

Friday Five: Bartenn Mills

friday fiveToday’s Friday Five focus is Bartenn Mills, author of cozy thriller and mystery short stories and novels.

Bartenn Mills was born and raised in the upper Mid-west but after moving north, south, east and west she settled in a small Iowa town where she raised a family without bloodshed and currently works full-time at a respectable job, certainly nothing that would suggest a life of fictional crime. Along the way she gathered a few contest awards and published several short stories and poems. Her debut novel, Bishop to Queen’s Knight, was closely followed by Bishop Bewitched. Her most recent novel, Vanilla Lies, is set in 1985 when computers were young and murder wasn’t so innocent. In the wee hours of the morning you can find her solving imaginary murders.

There are too many men in Jane Vanilla’s life —
One wants her love.
One wants her money.
One wants her dead.

Jane unwittingly has the only copy of a tell-all memoir. Everyone who’s read the book has died. As the circle of corpses close in on her, Jane needs to get her head out of the clouds before her feet get planted six feet underground.

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BartennMills1. What literary character are you most like and why?

Probably Pollyanna, as I always see a silver lining.

2. What are three things on your bucket list?

My bucket list is pretty complete. I try not to let the things I want to do get pushed into a tomorrow that may never come. But if my family was to pick three things I would like to do they would be go to Disney, go to Disney, go to Disney, even though I’ve been several times.

3. What’s your current writing project and what are your writing plans for the near future?

Currently I am working on Bishop’s Ghost, the third book in the Garfield Falls series, where Detective Bishop solves his first case. I’ve had several short stories accepted into anthologies and I would like to make them available as a single collection.

4. Why should people read YOUR stuff? Who’s your target audience and why?

If you like a fast thrilling story that doesn’t forget to develop the characters I think that you’ll enjoy my books. If you know who Cannon, Kojak and Magnum PI are you are my target audience.

5. How much of your published writing is based on personal experiences?

Everything and nothing. I’ve never killed anyone, I don’t know any police officers. I have met a witch. But I can relate to many of the emotions that my characters go through — love, hate, fear, longing.

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Vanilla Lies is currently available through Amazon.

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Resolutions: 2017 review and 2018 goals


Another form of self-care: crocheting random stuff, which I then list on Etsy because who needs a handful of tiny gnomes?

Every year I set goals for myself.

Let me preface this by saying 2017 sucked. I took on too much academically, especially in light of getting a part-time job that was more stressful than I’d anticipated (emergency shelter residential youth services direct care counselor), and having to revise my comprehensive exam twice set me back too. Throw in a health scare (I’m okay though!) and some personal issues that’ll make for a great book, tentatively called Every Day Is the Worst Day of My Life, and maybe I should be proud about how much I actually did manage to accomplish, rather than frustrated about how many goals I didn’t reach.

Either way, here’s how I did over the past year.

1. Finish something every month – short story, novella, novel, anything.

I finished a handful of new stuff, but nowhere near something every month.

2. Publish at least 4 things – again, short story, novella, novel, anything.

I DID THIS!!!!!! I published THIRTEEN stories on Medium, nine of which were previously unpublished works.

3. Finish the draft of a nonfiction book that’s good for my career.

I outlined the book and started the draft, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I had to revise my comprehensive exam twice, which set me back and took away from this project, as has working on my dissertation.

4. Do more live events – readings, book fairs, etc.

I did several events this year: a local lit fest, a book fair, and a solo reading. I sold an average of one book per event and didn’t give away enough swag to even say I got my name out there. My time is pretty damn valuable right now, so I’m going to hold off on local stuff for awhile because it’s just not worth it.

5. Travel more internationally – and Canada doesn’t count.

Other than a couple weeks in India last January, I unfortunately only made it out of the country to Canada – and even then, it was only once (okay, maybe twice because we drove from Seattle to Banff to Glacier National Park back up to Alberta and over to Winnipeg, but it was all the same trip). I got a part-time job starting in the summer, so now I have the money to travel but not the time. I did manage to get several trips in though: Georgia and the Carolinas over spring break, a week solo in a secluded cabin in northern Michigan, that trip to the Pacific Northwest and the Rockies, plus some day trips and weekend trips around the Midwest. And on a happier note, I leave for India again in about a week (spending two weeks there with my kid), then it’s on to Iceland for spring break and a month in Thailand in June, which hopefully will also include some time in Singapore and Bali. And a summer trip to the southwest, that may include a jaunt down to Mexico.

6. Read 100 books.

I started out doing pretty well at staying on pace, but really fell off this fall due to a grueling schedule that left little time for reading. I read a bunch of stories on Medium, but those aren’t trackable or books. I ended up reading 56 books total in 2017.

Overall in 2017

As Armando Christian Pérez says, “Reach for the stars, and if you don’t grab them at least you’ll fall on top of the world.” Every year I set myself some Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs), knowing full well that I probably won’t reach them but at least they’ll move me closer to my overarching, long-term goals of becoming a more successful author, expanding my horizons, and achieving within my career field. This year, despite not really doing everything I’d planned, I’m still further along the path than I was a year ago. And next year’s BHAGs will get me further along as well.

2018 goals

  1. Better time management. I’m generally pretty busy with work and school and life, so when I get a moment to breathe I spend it on something like cat videos. While self-care is important, I have a long list of goals with many parts, and I need to focus if I’m going to accomplish everything on my lists. To that end, I’ve made a checklist of 13 things I want to get done every day, including writing tasks, school and career projects, and self-enrichment activities. I plan to track what I do every day, at least until it becomes an ingrained habit.
  2. Publish to Medium at least weekly.
  3. Publish a stand-alone novella or short story collection quarterly.
  4. Grow my reader base, whether on social media, my newsletter, or Medium, by at least double. So, 600 followers on Facebook, 1500 followers on Twitter, 200 followers on Medium, and 3000 mailing list subscribers.
  5. Post to my blog at least twice a week, and promote those posts to get more traffic here.
  6. Read 100 books.

Can I do it? Probably not. But I can at least try!

If you’ve set goals for yourself, what are they? How do you plan to accomplish them?

Friday Five: Shakyra Dunn

friday fiveToday’s Friday Five focus is Shakyra Dunn, author of fantasy and young adult short stories, novellas, and novels.

Shakyra Dunn can’t stray away from the impression that there is always an adventure around every corner! When she isn’t playing the role of the Creator, she is marching through the worlds of her favorite video game characters or taking drives around her city to see the sights. Born in Chicago, Illinois, she currently resides in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, striving to experience more than the little town.

In her latest, First Words: Final Lesson, a recently-crowned princess with a thirst for magic accidentally destroys her home. A simple youthful rebellion grows into a lifelong friendship. A young woman meets reliable allies. And a young boy is dealt a harsh hand when he sets out to make his own path. Four tales, four parties, all intertwined to set the stage for a bigger event. The sense of adventure builds as lessons prepare to be learned, building the bridge for their first words to be spoken.

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ShakyraDunn1. Why do you write in the genres you listed above?

Fantasy has been my own personal reality for as long as I can remember. I grew up playing a lot of story-driven video games as well as reading many books in the genre, and it weaseled its own way into my life from the moment I held a controller.

Fantasy opens so many different opportunities for crafting your own private world, and it unleashes so many possibilities. I couldn’t see myself becoming ensnared in any other genre as wholesomely as I stuck myself into this one. As for young adult, I like to show the darker side of growing up, discovering yourself, your potentials, and it blends well into different universes from the one that we know!

2. If you could pick just one book to read for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

Just one? Oh wow, um, I may have to say right now, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Can’t go wrong with Hunter S. Thompson.

3. What do you want your readers to take away from your works?

I want them to be inspired to follow their dreams. I’ve had a rather troubling past myself, and stepping into the field of writing was one of the most stressful and amazing things that I could have ever done for myself. My characters share their experiences with others, and they continue pushing forward to reach their goals.

It’s never bad to keep reaching.

4. What do you want your tombstone to say?

Ooh! This is a REALLY good one!

“Beyond the grave, magic will always flow. Keep your eyes open for pixie dust and wisps of wonder.”

5. What is the most important thing that people DON’T know about your subject/genre, that you think they need to know?

Just because it’s fantasy doesn’t meant that you need to go insane with the possibilities. Have rules in your world. Know your limitations. Make sure that your CHARACTERS have limitations, or they’re going to be perfect, and perfect is boring.

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First Words: Final Lesson is currently available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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