Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review: Unwrap My Heart by Alex Falcone and Ezra Fox

When I first scammed a free review copy of Unwrap My Heart, I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into. Sure, co-authors Alex Falcone and Ezra Fox have shown, across hundreds of episodes of the Read It and Weep podcast, that they are great at dissecting bad books. But, as I discovered about halfway through performing my own knee surgery to save money, putting things together is a lot harder than taking things apart.

Unwrap My Heart is a YA supernatural parody romance, first conceived on the Read It and Weep podcast. The book is narrated from the perspective of high schooler Sophia, who finds herself falling in love with the new guy Seth—who's pretty obviously a secret mummy. The sunken, hollow eyes and bandages are a bit of a giveaway, though most people pass it off as a hipster affectation. Sophia, for her part, is accident prone to the point of constant self-endangerment, so vacuous that you wonder what Seth could possibly see in her, and entirely unperturbed as Seth graduates from creepy stalker behavior, to infantilizing her, to outright manipulation by selective refusal to communicate.

If any of this sounds oddly familiar, it's because Unwrap My Heart rarely strays from its chief well of parody: the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. Even when it does depart, it does so with a nod (or perhaps a middle finger) to the popular series about a hundred-year-old vampire dating a teenage girl. Take the moment when Seth clears up some confusion regarding his own age:

"We're basically the same age. Which is good, really. Monster or no, if I was hundreds or thousands of years older than you this would be a really troubling relationship."

But is Unwrap My Heart any good? And have I been stalling on answering that question, in the hopes of screwing with the authors' heads, playing upon their emotional and artistic investment for no better reason than my own sadistic pleasure? The answer to both questions is a resounding "yes," and if you've forgotten what the first question even was, let me reiterate: I loved every page of this wonderful little book.

The voice of Unwrap My Heart is reminiscent of the playful, sarcastic tone of a Read It and Weep episode, and I was pleased to discover that the authors' skill at podcasting is matched by a skill for novel-writing. The book has a coherent, satisfying, and well-paced plot. The prose is smooth. The jokes come frequently enough to keep you chuckling, but not so thick as to take you out of the story, or to turn it into a hollow farce. Against all odds, a couple of podcasters decided to base their first novel on an off-hand joke from the show, and somehow managed to create a real page turner.

The one area where the book falls short is in the characters. While they are undeniably interesting, for the most part they aren't terribly engaging. Considering the book's core purpose—to satirize the genre and make a mockery of fantasy writers tapping ever-more-outlandish creatures for teenage girls to have a problematic romance with—it's hard to fault the authors for this. But I will fault them, both because they chose their premise and now must live with it, and because it turns out I'm kind of a jerk.

The great shortcoming in the characters is that, for the most part, they're simply not characters. Instead, they're jokey reflections of characters from other books. Sophia's dad is warm-hearted, devoted, and rocks an amazing mustache because the dad in Twilight has these traits. Motivations and hobbies seem to exist solely to service a joke or reference. I could easily forgive this if the book was a farce through and through, but there's a welcome thread of sincerity weaved into its pages which makes you want to care about these characters, while the characters themselves give you little to care about.

But this is not a fatal flaw. Despite the weak characters, Unwrap My Heart is an absolute delight to read. It's a balm for these trying times and an antidote to the abusive romances found in so much bestselling YA fiction. I found myself staying up late, walking to the store with my nose buried in my Kindle, and reading in a parked car for so long that my neighbors worried I was having a stroke, because I just couldn't put it down.

In short, I highly recommend this book and I can't wait to see what these folks cook up next.

Unwrap My Heart will be available December 1st, 2016 on Amazon and through the book's website at

Note also that familiarity with the Twilight series and other books in that genre is not required to enjoy Unwrap My Heart, but if you really want to brush up on it, the Read It and Weep crew have you covered with the extensive review that kicked off their podcast.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Something else you can do

If you're liberally inclined, and looking for another way to take action, feel free to use or adapt the following letter I'll be sending to any media outlets who try to normalize Stephen Bannon's antisemitic, homophobic, racist, misogynist, and bigoted beliefs. When you see a newspaper, news program, or news site calling him a "hardcore conservative," or a "nationalist," or otherwise disguising his attitudes for the sake of false balance, you can just fill in the blanks and send it off. Newspapers, in particular, really do seem to weigh these sorts of letters when deciding the tone of future reporting, if they receive enough of them.
 I believe in the importance of neutral reporting, which is why I'm so concerned about your recent characterization of Stephen Bannon as "[hardcore conservative/ other inaccurate category]." To call Bannon, the president-elect's current choice for White House Chief Strategist a [inaccurate category] is not neutrality. The principle of journalistic neutrality is served when the facts are reported objectively, without bias or partisan judgement. It is not served by euphemisms that hide a subject's disreputable beliefs from your readers, and it is certainly not served by soft-peddling bigotry.

Now, I'm not asking you to call Stephen Bannon a bigot. I'm asking that, instead of the sanitized, normalizing, and comforting characterization from your [date] article entitled [title], you provide quotations and context which will allow your readers to decide the matter for themselves. After all, if you are not providing enough information for your readers to make their own judgement, then what is your purpose as journalists?
And if you're conservatively inclined... well, maybe you should consider sending a letter like this, anyway. I mean, do you really want "conservative" to become a euphemism for Steve Bannon's sort of bigotry? That's as much a smear against you, as it is a normalization of hate against me.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

My Vagenda for the Morning

This morning, first thing after I made coffee, I began contacting my state and local representatives, to make sure they know that my priority as a California voter is to stand against the direction America is likely to go in the new year. My newly elected state assemblyman, Marc Berman, doesn't have an office that can take telephone calls yet, so I resorted to e-mail, and had a chance to put down in writing the central points of the discussions I'd had with aides to my other representatives.

Here it is:
I'm a voter in Mountain View, and I believe that, just as California has to lead progress in the nation in the good times, it has to fight the rearguard action in the dark times. So, as the new California assembly meets, I would like Marc to sponsor and support bills to achieve the following:

1. Affirm the right of cities in California to designate themselves as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants, and to do all that can be done at the state level to help those areas protect their residents from deportation. This doesn't only protect immigrants today, but sets the stage to protect others if things really go bad. Above all, I don't want to see my friends torn from their families. As a transgender woman, I also have to look to the remote but growing possibility that some day someone is going to come for me. Enshrining sanctuaries into California law would help quell both of those fears.

2. I would like the California Assembly to vote on a statement of principles affirming California's commitment to the rights and safety of all people, whether they're Muslim, Jewish, LGBTQ, people of color, disabled, or members of any other minority group. The nation should have someone to look to at a time like this, and as we believe in the essential dignity of all people, that responsibility falls on us.

3. I would also like the assembly to vote to reaffirm California's commitment to end global warming and reduce carbon emissions. We're such a large part of the nation's economy that we can go a long way toward helping, just on our own. We can set an example not just for the nation, but for the world, to show that you can fight global warming and not just maintain but strengthen your economy.

4. Finally, I'd like Marc to do what can be done to help keep healthcare coverage for as many people as possible. I know this is a tough one, considering the federal money we're going to lose for Medi-Cal. No one's expecting a miracle. But we have a duty to at least show willing, to patch wherever we can, and to help as many people as the budget allows.

Okay. That's all for now. Let's make a difference where we can.
 A lot of people are very worried about what's going to happen to them in 2017. I've been seeing a lot of people from vulnerable demographics, even in progressive areas, who are suddenly hopeless for their future, and more who feel helpless to protect their loved ones. If that's you, this is something you can do today. Call them. Write them. Show up in person.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

How It Should Will Have Ended: A Song of Ice and Fire

Garrett Calcaterra, author and blogger extraordinaire, invited me and some other authors to finish off the A Song of Ice and Fire series. You know, just in case George R. R. Martin is hit by a bus. Or dies peacefully in his sleep from a sudden and painless ailment. I don't know why it always has to be buses.


Head on over there and check it out!