Author: Sera Taíno

Sera Taíno was born in Jersey City, NJ to Puerto Rican parents. She studied English Literature at Rutgers University and holds a Masters in Education from Stetson University. Her publications include a contribution to various anthologies. In addition, she experiments with writing poetry, book reviews and literary fiction. She is currently at work on her debut contemporary romance series.

Review: The Bride Test

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  • Publisher: Berkley (May 7, 2019)
  • Publication Date: May 7, 2019
  • Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC
  • Language: English

I read The Kiss Quotient last summer and was delighted with Stella Lane’s character. She has Asperger’s Syndrome and Hoang does an exceptional job of giving us a glimpse of how Stella processes the world. I’m a massive fan of unconventional female leads and Stella reminded me of Eleonor Oliphant in Eleonor Oliphant is Competely Fine (another excellent read).

In The Bride Test, she gives us Khai Diep, an autistic male lead. His mother, desperate over the fact that he doesn’t date, goes to Vietnam to get him the perfect wife. The title refers to the test she devises to help her select a suitable bride for her son, a test Esmeralda Tran, a hotel maid, easily passes. For the sake of her mother, grandmother and daughter, Esme accepts the proposal to go to America with the purpose of persuading Khai to marry her before the end of the summer. Instead of simply seducing Khai, she falls in love with him as well and the novel hinges on whether Khai can divest himself of the idea that he doesn’t have feelings to admit he loves Esme, too.

If you read all the reviews, you will get a sense of why this book is so successful – dual POVs with distinct character voices; a swoon-worthy male lead who is kind, considerate, intelligent, a bit clueless and utterly unaware of his worth; a resilient female lead to understands her value and is willing to fight for her future and the future of her daughter.

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But this book impacted me for other reasons, as well. Khai’s autism isn’t really acknowledged by his family. Therefore, to some degree, he is left to his own resources to interpret for himself what his unique way of processing the world means. Having years of experience teaching children, I’ve learned that if we as adults don’t define in clear terms what makes an exceptional child unique, whether they have autism, Asperger’s or giftedness, they will rationalize for themselves what makes them different and many times, they don’t choose the best explanation.

Khai believes he is simply incapable of love and grief and comes to the conclusion that he is bad when he fails to respond the way others do to the death of his best friend, Andy. This conditions his behavior for years, until Esme comes along and proves otherwise.  But the point I’m making is this: if Khai’s autism had been addressed in a way that made clear to him and his family that he simply has a different way of processing stimuli and emotions, he might not have drawn the conclusion that he was bad. Hoang nails the power of these mistaken self-beliefs and how they can negatively impact our lives, simply because the adults left the explanation of a complex dynamic in the hands of a child instead of acknowledging the thing directly.  Khai’s journey of self understanding and acceptance makes me love him a thousand times more.

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The Bride Test also contains elements of the immigrant narrative. Hoang explains in the author’s note how Esme moved from being a peripheral character to the main love interest in the novel. Hoang derived her inspiration for Esme’s character from her mother, and used the writing of this book as an opportunity to get to know her own mother’s immigration story. This made an impression on me. As a first generation Puerto Rican, born and raised in the United States, I will never know what it’s like to pick up your family, leave a way of life to come a country where you don’t speak the language, armed only with hope and a dream.  I lived in Europe for many years but I had a good job, knew the languages and had the expectation of returning home some day.

Stories like Hoang’s mother, Esme or my grandparents are completely different. We come to understand these experiences by becoming familiar with our parent’s histories. There’s so much in Esme’s determination and spirit that I recognized from the stories of my parents and grandparents, what they did to go from being barely literate farm workers to entrepreneurs to having children who went on to go to college and beyond.  That’s why I was rooting for Esme, independent of her relationship with Khai.

Romances like these are why I love this genre so much.

5 enthusiastic stars.

 

Review – In Case You Forgot

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  • Publisher: Bold Strokes Books (June 11, 2019)
  • Publication Date: June 11, 2019
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English

Amazon

When I first read the description of this novel on Netgalley, I was genuinely excited. It hits a lot of my soft spots – #ownvoices writers, m/m romance, socially aware, complex characters and diverse leads. I am particularly enjoying the number of romances being published that are either diverse or engage in social issues. I want novels like these to be successful and try to support them every way I can.

This is how I approached In Case You Forgot by Frederick Smith and Chaz Lamar. Told in the first person present, the story althernates POVs between Zaire and Kenney. Each chapter title ties in with the main title to complete an aphorism. For example, ICYF: Be Honest, ICYF: Leave on Read, and so on, implying that each chapter should serve as a lesson reinforcing the aphorism presented. It’s a clever way of organizing the novel and provides thematic structure to each chapter.

We meet our first main character, Zaire, in chapter one when he asks his huband, Mario, for a divorce. This act sets off Zaire’s search for self-realization as he recognizes the need to be free of his partner in order to find the fulfillment he seeks. In contrast, Kenny Kane is not the agent of his own change in the beginning. When we meet him, he is at his mother’s funeral, where his on-again/off-again boyfriend, Brandon-Malik, breaks up with him by text. It’s an act that haunts Kenny throughout the entire novel and, while it is clear Brandon-Malik is not an ideal partner, Kenny spends the better part of the novel pining after him.

And here is where we get to the crux of my struggle with this novel. On Amazon, this novel is categorized as African American Romance Fiction and LGBT Romance. Therefore I went in, fully expecting a romance read, complete with a meet-cute, beats, declaration, resolution including an HEA/HFN. Instead, the main characters don’t even meet until about 30% through the narrative and spend the better part of the book apart. Because of the expectations, I kept trying to read this novel as a romance and grew frustrated with it.

This is not an indie publication, therefore I hold the publisher responsible for the miscategorization. I’m certain I would have enjoyed the novel much more if I had gone into it expecting an LGBT fiction read without the expectation of romance. Realizing the dissonance between genre and content, I reread the book in an attempt to reframe the narrative in my mind and give it a chance to be successful.

Apart from that, the novel is enjoyable on its own terms. It serves as tableau of black youth trying to find connection and love in West Hollywood, complete with all the racial, social, and personal challenges that implies. Zaire and Kenny’s struggles feel very relateable and there’s a hipness to the characters that I find refreshing.

The point of view was a bit of a struggle for me. I normally don’t favor any one viewpoint over another – whatever works for a novel works for me. However, the first person point of view reminds me of the YA genre, in particular when paired with the present tense. As a reference point, The Hunger Games trilogy is told in this very specific pov/tense. It lends immediacy and intensity to the narrative but it’s hard to pull off if the internal dialogue isn’t rich and engaging. In ICYF, there were times where the transition from internal dialogue to action was jerky and took me out of the reading.

What really works in this novel is the worldbuilding. The setting and supporting characters provide a convincing backdrop against which the characters grow. When I ignored the flaws in narration, I was able to enjoy the realistic character arcs of  Zaire and Kenny overcoming their respective struggles to arrive at a place where they are doing what they like to do and are satisfied with the outcome of their lives. As I stated earlier, this journey felt real to me. If I had read it that way from the beginning, I would have gotten more out of it. While there are romantic elements, this novel would be better marketed as straight fiction. Knowing this in advance will allow reader to better manage their expectations and choices.

4 out of 5 stars

ARC provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Sticking to a Writing Project

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I should be writing the draft for my second novel.

Instead, I just finished drafting the synopsis of a short story that has been nagging me since last week. It got me thinking about writing for its own sake, as opposed to writing for the sake of a project. Obviously, a writer can’t be successful if they can’t get sh*t done, so there is something to sticking to a thing and getting it done.

But the thing with me and projects is that every step of it is planned. I have an outline (which I deviate from all the time), a word count which I try to hit or exceed each day, and a self-imposed deadline.

With short stories or things like this that hit me randomly, there is no plan. That kind of freestyle writing is fun and liberating, though most of the time, such stories will sit in my famous bin when I’m done. Sometimes they are useful when an opportunity to contribute to an anthology presents itself and I can dust them off and edit them. But mostly they are there. Five or ten hours of my life in a file somewhere.

It all goes back to the tension between productivity and creativity – I have a ton of ideas but what do I dedicate my time to? What am I trying to accomplish? There are as many ways to manage this as individuals struggling with question. I found some great ideas in this blog post, How to Decide Which Writing Project to Focus On.

Personally, I like to get the nagging project down on paper. I do a fair bit of journaling and have notebooks full of half-ideas. For example, this morning, I handwrote eight pages of my story, in synopsis form. I’ll type it up so it’s backed up in my drive. Having worked it out of my system, if it doesn’t fit in my current project, I’ll set it aside. It might come back as a project of its own later. Or it might just sit somewhere, a bit of writing practice that went nowhere.

What I didn’t do was let it cannibalize what I have in front of me. Yeah, I wrote for a couple of hours and it might look like wasted time. But I’m still on track and, after today, I probably won’t dream about the thing like I’ve been doing for the last week. It frees up some intellectual bandwidth and I’m not anxious because I haven’t wrecked my potential manuscript by going on a tangent.

The post referenced above also discusses the value of using a calendar. I print them up from Outlook and staple them into my journal.  By having projects chunked and scheduled, you give yourself less permission to veer away from your objective because, sorry, that plot bunny is not on the schedule.

A side note on journaling: bullet journals and other kinds of creative organizational systems are nice but sometimes, they become a project unto themselves. I’m not interested in getting all fancy with what is essentially a brute tool. If you’re like me and are looking more for streamlining, below are two posts with some great suggestions on using both calendars and journals to maximize productivity:

 9 Calendar Hacks to Maximize Your Productivity

How to Boost Writing Productivity with Calendars or To-Do Lists

For those of you who like to get creative and colorful, there are some great Pinterest boards dedicated to just that.

Whatever you choose, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with chasing the bright shiny object, if that’s what your creativity demands. But being able to finish a thing is a big deal. If an idea continues to persist even after a project is complete, then you know it’s a keeper.

 

 

 

 

30-Day Social Media Detox

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You can download this graphic here, courtesy of Austin Kleon.

When I set out to try to become a published writer, the first advice I recieved was to get a social media presence. Be accessible on all social media outlets. So I got everything – Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest – you name it, I have it. Then I got Hootsuite at the time and I spent hours setting up posts and graphics to post on a schedule, all with the object of being seen. By whom, I don’t know, I’d barely written anything and most definitely did not have a book to promote.

But I felt like I was doing something. I was creating an author’s platform. Woo-hoo for me!

Now, the conventional wisdom seems to have swung away from the author’s platform for fiction writers. Better to just write the book. And here I am with a bunch of social media outlets I don’t enjoy having.

Like, serioulsy, if I thought I had any future as an influencer, I would have gone ahead and done some influencing, or something. Instead, I wasted a butt-load of time doing things, none of which involved the actual writing I needed to do.

There’s also the whole generalized anxiety disorder thing. When I go on different platforms and see, not constructive dialogue, but trolls and rabble-rousers instigating on threads that otherwise have actual value, my anxiety shoots through the roof. Self-care demands that I not expose myself to things that are bad for me. I come from family who suffers from anxiety and would prefer to not have to treat it with a half-pill of Xanax each day the way my grandmother and aunts used to do.

So I was encouraged when I read about Roni Loren’s 30-Day Social Media Ban. First, because bans are definitely a thing and second, I wasn’t the only creative feeling ambivalent about the pressure of being on social media instead of doing what we (well they) do best, which is create cool stuff. If you have a chance, scroll to the end of the post and check out all of the great things Loren accomplished by not being on social media.

For the month of June, I’m going to go on a 30-Day Social Media detox. I will allow myself two exceptions – lending my promotional efforts towards a short story collection designed to raise money for cancer research, a collection that features my novelette, Mar y Sol; and this blog. If things go the way I hope, I should be super-productive. I want to draft my manuscript for the second installment of my novel series (I queried the series and submitted a manuscript – might as well keep on working while I wait). To do that, I need focus and time. I’m out of school for the summer and these two months tend to be precious in terms of carving out time for my own pursuits. This is especially true if we don’t take our annual month-long holiday to see the relatives. I’d like to make the most of these days.

We’ll have to see how I adapt to not having the dopamine high of checking my phone 80 times a day. Since keeping up a blog is another one of the habits I’d like to develop, I’ll post my progress here.

So if you guys see me out on social media doing anything other than promoting my novelette after June 1st, shout at me. I’m all about extrinsic motivation.

Other resources:

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life

Read a Book Instead (blog post by Austin Kleon)

9 Positive Benefits of Social Media Detox

 

 

 

 

Review – How to Bang a Billionaire/How to Blow It With a Billionaire

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  • Publisher: Forever Yours
  • Publication Date: April 16, 2017, December 12, 2017
  • Sold by: Hachette Book Group
  • Language: English

Amazon

How to Bang a Billionaire/How to Blow It with a Billionaire       

Note: This is a review of both books together. Might be a bit spoilery. Definitely long-winded.

I’d been putting off reading both novels since I found out about them because the third novel is scheduled for release in September and I wanted to read them all at once. Especially with a writer like Hall, you get so much out of reading his series all the way through.  But I broke down and, while the books were amazing, I’ll now have to wait the entire summer for the third installment. That is the not-so-fun-part

On the surface, this series functions as a rebuttal to 50 Shades of Grey.  It takes the larger beats of that series and reworks them into a completely different story that, in the most simplistic terms, fixes most of what was wrong with James’ series. All the ick factors that characterized 50 Shades, from the poor writing and ridiculous depiction of BDSM to the worrisome message it sends about romance and abuse, are demolished and replaced with, like, good stuff in Hall’s novel. And it works.

In Book 1, we meet Arden, a young but resolutely un-virginal, soon-to-be Oxford graduate who will probably just barely pass his classes. However, he is sharp, witty, and bookish, but not in an academic way. He is positively gleeful in the pursuit of his sexual pleasure. When his friend, Nik, comes down with laryngitis, he takes over for him to man the telephones for an alumni fundraiser. This is when he speaks to Caspian Hart for the first time.  A reclusive, incredibly successful billionaire, the attraction is instantaneous. Caspian surprises Arden by meeting him at the fundraising dinner later that week. The chemistry hinted at in their telephone call explodes in person and it is off the charts.

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Arden is understandably lost as he approaches the end of his schooling but he is full of joy and intelligence. I’ve only read this series and the Spires series so I might be talking out of my ass but I always believed that Ash in Glitterland was the smartest of Hall’s creations. However, Arden possesses a wittiness and cultural withitness that makes his character literally sparkle on the page. It’s no wonder Caspian is so taken by him.

About Caspian.

Caspian is mysterious, wealthy, handsome, and ruthless, with an edge of cruelty. The mystery of Caspian Hart is sustained by using Arden as the first-person narrator. We discover Caspian as he does, and trust me, there is a lot to excavate there, especially as more is revealed about his backstory in Book 2. Basic forms of intimacy are an issue with him and many times, when he speaks, he sounds almost robotic. While he is clearly attracted to Arden, he tries to resist the attraction at first and, when he no longer can, arranges a short-term arrangement wherein Arden is put up in an apartment, his bills and expenses paid for, all in exchange for a sexual relationship with Caspian. Arden, and the reader, quickly suss out that Caspian has dominant tendencies he is not comfortable with, even though he has a willing partner in Arden.

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One thing I like about these books is that Arden rightfully frames their sexual preferences as healthy kinks, whereas Caspian sees those impulses as deviant and dangerous. This was one of the great (among many) failures of 50 Shades – the idea that Christian Grey was a dominant because of his sexual coercion as a boy, a condition that he needed to be cured of, whereas Caspian has, along the way, been manipulated to believe that these tendencies are unnatural and it is Arden tries his hardest to liberate him of that misperception.  In fact, sex in all its forms is depicted positively and isn’t used as a deviant crutch to manufacture false conflict. There is conflict around Caspian’s discomfort with his kink but it isn’t the kink itself that’s portrayed negatively. It’s one of many instances in which Hall inverts the roles and dynamics found in 50 Shades and the results are much more effective.

There’s so much to work with in this series. The first installment leaves the reader with a satisfactory ending, while the second ends with a heart wrenching cliff hanger. As a reader, you are rooting for this couple but each of them contribute to tensions in the relationship. Caspian’s are obvious – he is just this side of fucked up. And Arden can be impatient with Caspian, pushing him at times when he would do well to slow down.

Caspian is mesmerizing when he lets his guard down. He may have ruthless tendencies, but there is something vulnerable, painful and loveable about him. There were several instances where I kept saying, “Ardy, baby – Run, don’t walk, away from that man!” I spent much of both novels in fear for Arden because I knew Caspian had the power to hurt him deeply. When Caspian inevitably does, I truly ached for him. However, Arden, grows in personal power throughout the novels until he comes into his own in book two. Watching that development is one of the best things about this series.

And Hall’s writing? Besides the craft stuff, at which he is a master, and his use of language, which is pure poetry, he can, in one page, go from invoking Harold Bloom to Mace Windu and it’s so thrilling to see someone so intellectually nimble at work. It’s scary.  And intimidating. And downright humbling.

Now, the hardest part for me as a reader is to get through this summer before the last installment comes out.

Of course, both books are 5-star reads

PS – I couldn’t stop listening to Energia by Camila, which reminds me of Arden in the preview chapter for book 3. If you do decide to spear your soul by reading the preview of How to Belong to a Billionaire at the end of the book 2, this song is the perfect accompaniment.

Don’t throw it in the plastic bin

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I haven’t posted lately. The nice thing about being relatively unknown is there is no actual pressure to produce content because no one is waiting for you to post. Each blog post is a shout in the void and, for an anxious person like me, that works out just fine.

With that established, I’ll tell you (my nonexistent audience) what I have been up to.

I kinda-sorta finished editing my first novel. And it’s…well, it’s not what all that I want it to be.  I’m not saying that to garner sympathy of any kind or publicly flog myself with my clear and evident insecurities, of which I possess in abundance. I’m saying this because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that all first novels are kind of crappy.

That’s why I have one of those large, plastic bins next to my desk. All my middling, experimental or dissatisfying work ends up in there. Just like my first poems and short stories are all safely hidden in the bottom of that bin, to be pulled out when I want to convince myself that in all the time I’ve spent, well, being alive, there is some material evidence of my existence, beyond the launching of my DNA into the human gene pool. So I almost stuffed this bit of writing down there, too.

But there’s something in this manuscript which I believe, with more polishing, might be worth sharing. There’s also a lot to build on – I’m thinking a family saga of interconnected stories, the first four contemporary, followed by a side series of historical novels. I think I could pull it off, and if the conventional wisdom is true, the more I write, the better I will hopefully get.

Such was my optimism that I sent my manuscript, after a professional edit, and a few passes through a beta group, to one (just one) publishing company. Instead of blanketing the world with my magnum opus, I’m playing this game with myself. I want to see what happens. I might get a rejection (the most likely outcome). I might get a revise and rewrite (a solid win). Or something bigger. Who knows.

The game is simply – when I (most likely) get it back, I’ll attack it again. And send it out, this time to perhaps three publishers. Or five. Because, for once, I have something that I think might not be half-bad.

This is the part where I should add value to your lives. I enjoyed this blog post, which isn’t too old, called Know Thyself…By Writing Your First Novel.  It’s a bit abstract, in the sense that it gives you the rah-rah about writing your novel, but doesn’t actually give you the how. That’s what all those courses and craft posts and organizational strategies are for. But the article does position writing as a path to self-knowledge, which is not an entirely a bad approach, especially if you aren’t aspiring to add your voice to the great Western Canon or whatever, but you simply want to tell a story.

Just don’t be so quick to dump your stuff in your giant, plastic bin.

 

Everything’s a Metaphor

This post is one of a series of writing exercises that I’ve used, either in a writing course or on my own. Each post includes this disclaimer, a description of the exercise, and an example from my own writing. If you would like to try out the exercises on your own blog, refer to the exercise in the title and ping back to this post (if you have a WordPress blog). Or you may simply leave a link in the comment section so I and others can check out your work.

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We experience the world through our five senses. When we write, we are limited to filtering our ideas and emotions through the mode of our bodies. That’s why abstract writing is often very difficult for us to connect to as readers. We have no way of absorbing the dimensions of those ideas through purely intellectual means (one would argue that mathematicians and philosophers are able to do this but even they avail themselves of symbols to stand in for abstractions, not unlike our use of language).

Therefore, to create immediacy and engagement when conveying abstractions such as love, justice, courage, jealousy, hatred, etc., it’s important to try to make the reader feel these ideas through their senses. One way we can do this is through the use of figurative language.

Metaphorical or figurative language is the bread and butter of poets and writers. One way to understand the use of this type of language is to remember that all figurative language is a comparison. The metaphor, simile, hyperboles, personification, synecdoche – all of these modes exist to concretize abstractions through the use of comparisons involving the senses. Mastering the use of this tool can bring power, resonance and immediacy to a scene or description in a larger work.

Exercise: Choose a concept, emotion or idea and create or revise a piece of writing that uses concrete comparisons to convey the abstraction. You may choose to use one overarching comparison or a series of related ones to convey your meaning.

Be aware that in a short writing piece, it is best to limit your use of figurative language to a central motif so that your piece is not overwhelmed by a flurry of imagery.

In “The Red Dress,” I choose to convey the limitations agoraphobia imposes on a relationship. Pay attention to the way the concept of space is manipulated as well as the persistent use of bird imagery.

The Red Dress

“It’s all so public, isn’t it? The dancing, the music, the way people touch each other,” Rachel said, her hands waving like a pair of hummingbirds searching for a place to land. They found peace when she reached across the kitchen counter to test the latch on the window above the sink.

Joshua walked very deliberately towards her, careful to not startle her with his movements. Outside of his home, he moved with careless abandon, his body free to lumber along, make noise, swing itself out in wide arcs, and stretch into space as far as he could reach. But in the home he shared with his wife, he contracted inward, careful not to move with even natural suddenness for fear she would relapse and retreat into the fortress of their bedroom again.

“Just this once, Rachel. You’ll like it. I have that striped suit I’ve never worn before,” Joshua answered. “You know, the one I bought for Marianne’s Christmas Party?”

She twitched slightly, a ripple of motion that crawled over the surface of her skin. “So many people. I wonder if I would even remember how to dance? Do you remember that one party boat we took from Manhattan?”

“I do. You could wear the red dress from that night. I’ve always liked that one.”

She moved away, fidgeting with the lock on the door leading to the garden, cocking her head to the side with quick, jerky movements to admire, as she often did, the blooms unfurling beneath the endless blue sky.

“I wouldn’t want to expose my back to the cold,” she answered, shivering as if she’d already put on the dress. He wanted to scream at her, shake her hard and tell her she was safe, that the world was not conspiring to crush her, that neither of them were worth the effort. But she’d never believe him and he’d only feel worse for making her cry. So he trailed behind her as she jimmied locks she’d sealed that morning.

“A shawl, then. Or a bolero jacket. It would keep you warm.”

She slipped her fingers behind the venetian blinds, then turned to stare at him, looking older than fear, older than a woman should ever look. Lines appeared around her eyes, crinkling the smooth skin at the corners of her lips. Her skin morphed into something pallid and sallow, provoking his pity and rage in equal measure.

“I did very much love to dance.”