Dreadnought – April Daniels

Dreadnought CoverSeries: Nemesis, #1
First Published: 24th January, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Superhero / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Danny is transgender, but she’s scared about telling anyone. When the superhero Dreadnought dies and transfers his powers to Danny, suddenly she gains her ideal body. Now everyone can see she’s a girl, so keeping it secret isn’t going to work anymore.

There are some pacing issues at the start. Dreadnought’s history is included as one long chunk of explanation, rather than sprinkling it in. Fortunately, this isn’t a common thing in the book and the pacing does improve.

Danny has social issues to face, such as the reaction from her parents and going back to school. She catches the attention of the local superhero team, which Dreadnought had been part of before his death. She also meets another young hero, Calamity, who has a very different perspective. Calamity is Latina and her family haven’t been treated well by the authorities, so she doesn’t trust the local team. Danny and Calamity’s relationship was the best part for me. They’re marginalised in different ways, which impacts their approaches to being heroes. Right from the start, Calamity is worried about the police and other authorities. This is something that Danny hasn’t really had to think about, as being white shields her from a lot of it.

The new supervillain is introduced right at the start, when Dreadnought is killed. It takes longer for anyone to figure out what she’s up to, as it isn’t the sort of plot the heroes are expecting. This opens up a larger mystery that will undoubtedly be the rest of the series.

I found this book very heavy, as there’s a lot of bigotry. Danny is called a variety of slurs, from ones aimed at trans people to ableist ones. She’s frequently misgendered. Her parents are abusive, and were before she transitioned, so that only gets worse. The result is Danny believes she’s a terrible person and constantly berates herself about being stupid and worthless. Then there’s the hero who thinks Danny is trying to infiltrate womankind and likens being trans to being a rapist. Some readers going through similar issues might find comfort in seeing someone else facing this, but some might find it too much.

Disability is touched on, though not in depth. Prior to getting superpowers, Danny has some hearing loss. This isn’t really explored outside of mentioning it was the case, which struck me as odd. Crowded places sound very different to me if I have something boosting the sound. An amputee appears later, but those scenes are too brief for me to have much to say. I expect that to be more relevant in the next book.

Though I thought it was a reasonable story, the binary way it approached gender didn’t work for me. Danny has internalised the idea that girls and boys have to act in set ways. Girls do this, boys do that. Girls have emotions like this, boys have emotions like that. There are a few quick references to maybe not everyone fitting this division, but it’s worded as though they’re rare exceptions to the rule.

In contrast, the narrative did challenge things like the media’s presentation of women’s bodies, the pressure to starve to stay thin, and other things like that. In those cases, Danny comes around to realising she’s internalised bad things. The gender stuff doesn’t get that realisation. A particular moment of discomfort is when a girl says she was forced to learn about makeup as the only girl in the family, which Danny thinks sounds wonderful without any reservations. This is no different from Danny being forced into playing football by her dad, as it’s all about enforcing expected gender roles, but it isn’t framed as a problem.

There are positive things about the book. It shows a trans lesbian teen coming out on top despite abuse and intolerance from the people around her. The larger mystery being set up for the series looks interesting. I only wish it’d not been quite so rigid when it came to gender.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Demon Girl’s Song – Susan Jane Bigelow

Demon Girl's Song CoverFirst Published: 20th September, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Andín’s dreams of the future come to an end when she gets an ancient demon stuck in her head. But it might be there are bigger problems in the world than one demon.

The setting is a secondary fantasy world at the start of its industrial revolution. There are factories and trains, alongside magic. Motorcars are just starting to appear in places, though not to the point of replacing horses. Socially, it’s a time of change. Women have few rights, which is first seen when Andín is unable to go to university. Her father thinks it would be a waste to send a girl, and instead wants to send her brother. It’s expected that Andín will marry and her brother will hold down a job. Yet these attitudes are being challenged, not only by Andín herself. At a larger scale, there’s a push away from emperors and monarchs towards democracy in some of the countries.

Things are a bit rocky at the start of the book. Neither Andín nor the demon come across as pleasant, with a lot of random angry outbursts. Some of these didn’t make sense, and still don’t even after thinking about them. I’d have expected the demon to be a little more cunning given his age, rather than giving away his presence through tantrums. A few extra lines in places might have clarified these reactions.

Once the initial mystery of how Andín ended up with the demon is resolved, it starts to really get going. I’m glad the book didn’t consist solely of the demon mystery, as it would have stretched a bit thin. It also gives them something else to be doing as they get used to each other.

The characters do get more interesting as they settle. One thing that’s particularly interesting is how the demon changes to having a new host. After years of inhabiting men, he initially thinks of himself as a man trapped in a girl. This starts to shift as the two merge together.

The cast is diverse, with non-white, lesbian and bisexual characters. There are some references to insanity as a shorthand for bad things, though it’s not as bad as most books in that regard.

This is a standalone book. It wouldn’t require a sequel to make sense. The choice of an industrial revolution setting is less common in the genre, which I appreciated. However, the slow start and initial difficulty getting to know the characters does make it harder to get into the story. Once I did, it was an entertaining read.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Book of Life

Book of Life CoverGenre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Creative Team: Jorge R. Gutiérrez (director, writer); Doug Langdale (writer); Guillermo del Toro (producer)
Main Cast: Diego Luna; Zoe Saldana; Channing Tatum; Ice Cube; Ron Perlman; Kate del Castillo; Christina Applegate
First Shown: October, 2014
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A group of school children are taken to see a special exhibit on Mexico, where they hear a story that took place many years ago.

The opening had promise. Once the frame story of the children settles in, the main action in the past gets going. It’s the Day of the Dead, and the rulers of the two lands of the dead are watching. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) is made of sugar and rules the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) is made of tar and rules the Land of the Forgotten. They see three children playing and make a wager. This is the point where I got that sinking feeling, and it just kept sinking lower as the story continued. The problem comes down to the wager: which of the two boys will marry the girl when they grow up.

There are things I liked about the film. The visuals were great. The school children are being told the story with wooden models, so the characters in the main story also resemble those models. The Land of the Remembered is particularly beautiful, with vibrant colours and detail. It creates a distinctive animation style.

The two immortals were the highlight for me. Both had great character designs, again with a lot of nice detail. Though they’re introduced as though one is good and one bad, it becomes clear that they’re both rather more ambiguous. I enjoyed the interplay between the two of them.

I also liked the plotline of Manolo (Diego Luna), one of the potential suitors, trying to find his place. He comes from a line of bullfighters, but wants to pursue music. This addresses gender role issues and machoism. Manolo is sensitive and doesn’t want to kill the bulls, which is seen as weak and unmanly.

Joaquín (Channing Tatum), the other suitor, is the son of a famous hero. Joaquín is arrogant and self-centred, but it becomes apparent that it comes from insecurity. He gets to grow into a more caring person as he comes to terms with his own issues.

Then there’s the problem of María (Zoe Saldana). Though María says she’s not a prize to be won, this is wishful thinking on her part. The entire story is about her having to choose one of the men. She gets a choice of which one, but she doesn’t have a choice to do something else with her life or marry someone else. There’s potential for stories to look at how women have very restricted choices at times, but this one failed to go there, because it never acknowledged that she was restricted.

One of the glaring things is that María does not have a personal story outside of the main plot. Manolo is figuring out his place in the world. Joaquín is trying to live up to the legacy of his dead father. But María is just there for the main plot. She was sent away by her father as a child, yet she doesn’t get space to address her family relationships as the others do. She’s highly educated, yet doesn’t have plans on what she might do next. She has combat training, yet when the action scenes roll around, they’re mainly there so the men can reconcile their differences by fighting together. She doesn’t really develop in any way from the María introduced as a child. All the speaking up, knowing how to fight, and being educated, serves to make her a more valuable prize. It doesn’t mean she gets treated as an equal part of the story.

Even for viewers who don’t have the same issue I did, and think love triangles are amazing, there’s no tension to this one. It’s obvious who she’ll marry from the start. There are no surprises here.

The setting could have told any story. The wager could have been anything. It could have gone in a direction no one expected and still have a happy ending. Instead, the main plotline was this, which really didn’t do justice to the characters and setting.

2016: Diversification

Happy Rainbow OctopusThis has been a year of shifting around what I do. I have a lot of detail about that, but if you want the quick version, skip to the end. The long version might be useful to someone else considering going in a similar direction.

I’ve been writing and blogging for around eight years. In the last few years, I’ve had to acknowledge that I’d never really fit in when it came to the writing world. I’d spent years trying, but it wasn’t happening. A few people talk to me, but they’re usually on the fringes as well. If this was a social club, I’d have left years ago. But it’s a work environment, so it’s difficult to stop being involved entirely. What was for sure is continuing with more of the same would not change anything. I was spending a lot of energy on something that was never going anywhere.

The big issue with my writing is that I write about characters and themes that make it hard to get by in the mainstream, but in all the wrong ways to be seen in the diversity community. The recent push for own voices work has pretty much guaranteed anything I write will sink, as so little of it can be promoted as own voices. I’ve always tended to write about the world around me, which includes a lot of people who aren’t like me. Even when a character is like me, it’s not really the narrative people expect from own voices. An example would be a non-white character of a specific race is expected, but a non-white character who isn’t sure of their own ancestry is not expected. People aren’t going to buy something when they’re not looking for it.

So this year was about diversifying in a different context. If writing couldn’t be my career, maybe a whole lot of little things could combine to be a career.

 

The Art of Zazzle

When I was trying to get reviews for my novel, I got a reply that hated the novel idea, but loved the cover. The cover had always got much more positive feedback than the novel itself. So late in 2015, I started up an art store on Zazzle. I chose Zazzle because it’s a large site with a wide variety of products. If my art was going to sell anywhere, it’d be there.

Zazzle is overwhelming at first. There are so many products, and the design tool gives a lot of freedom when it comes to placing images, making text editable, and other things like that. I focused on common items at first, like badges, fridge magnets and keychains. I turned things into t-shirts where I could, including a special t-shirt version of the novel cover blue jay. I made random stuff like ping pong balls to see if anyone would buy one.

The first year was pretty quiet, but I’ve been slowly building up the store. This paid off this year, as the festive season went well for me. The blue jay is one of my bestselling designs, to the point that it’s going to end up earning more than I’ve made selling the novel it illustrates.

One reason this is working out well is it’s reaching new people. Most sales are either through Zazzle’s own search engine or third parties linking to a product. My writing tends to attract other people who aren’t that wealthy, but Zazzle attracts people with money to burn. I have to keep this in mind when I’m designing. I’d never pay that much for some of the items, but there are people who will. On the other side, the smaller items are in a price range that someone on a tight budget could afford, so I make sure I always have some of those for each design.

Zazzle has an affiliate scheme that is part of their normal artist membership. I can gain referrals on anything I link to, including if I buy the item. It’s a very relaxed affiliate scheme, which makes a change from certain other programmes.

My plans for next year are to keep expanding my designs. I want to do some more animals, as they’re popular designs. Probably cats, because cats are great.

 

Blogs and Reviews

My blog used to have content that was more article-focused. I wrote about general issues of representation, the community, a bit about science in writing, and other things like that. This was never an easy road. Lack of support is a bit of an understatement. Negativity and death threats would sum it up much better.

It might sound strange at first to switch to book reviewing, as authors behaving badly over reviews get a lot of attention. But that’s also precisely why I switched. When an author attacks a reviewer, people defend the reviewer as a matter of principle. That’s why you’ve heard about it. Reviews are an ideal area of blogging for a stranger, because the principle of letting reviewers have opinions doesn’t require being known or being popular. The number of death threats and the like has gone down dramatically.

At the same time, I’m still talking about the same things as before. I’m just doing it in the context of specific examples, rather than broader overviews of an issue. I also hope this will do more good, as it’ll help people find / avoid books and other media.

Though I do tend to look for work by marginalised creators, I haven’t limited the blog to this. I know from my own experiences that it can difficult to be the right sort of marginalised for blogs with limits. It’s also difficult for anyone who is quieter about their identity. So I review anything that I feel like reviewing, with a focus towards authors and stories that are underrepresented.

Reviews are working as a way of producing regular free content. It means people can see I’m working on things, even if the big projects take more time to appear. It also passively promotes my other stuff (and stuff in my section for other creators) as it’s all in the sidebar.

 

Amazon Associates

Amazon is strict with their affiliate scheme. Affiliates must state they’re part of the programme and let website visitors know that cookies can be set by third parties. I wrote a privacy policy to cover this. However, affiliates also have to be careful exactly what they say. They can’t make it sound like Amazon endorses them or beg people to use the links to purchase items to support them. Prices can’t be listed with links. It’s very easy to step over the bounds of what is allowed. I keep a close eye on the official forums, so I can try to fix mistakes before they’re an issue.

I haven’t hit the threshold for payment yet, but it makes sense to keep using this system as I link out to so many books (and other items). It is allowed to link to my own books, which is useful.

I’m open to joining other affiliate schemes, but it has to be one where I’d have a chance of earning enough money to get paid. Amazon is chugging along about as expected, so I’ve no complaints, other than I wish I didn’t have to be paid by cheque.

 

Patreon

Patreon is something I couldn’t see working, because it requires having people who’ll sign up to pay money every month. I can’t work fast enough to provide guaranteed content as rewards, which makes my Patreon less appealing. But I do know people who run Patreon as a tip jar rather than a content subscription service. I didn’t see there was anything lost in trying.

I don’t make much on Patreon, but it is paying for my website. It’s a small thing, but it takes the pressure off anything I earn. It means I can pay for things other than website fees, including getting review items and supporting crowdfunding campaigns. It also covers the website being more expensive this year, due to the exchange rate changes. Patreon pays me in dollars, and I pay my website in dollars, so it’ll keep covering the fees even if my home economy completely falls apart.

I did do one Patreon-only post, which was a picture of a warm glow (the thing people get for supporting me). I did initially mean it more metaphorically, but there you go. I will likely do some other things sporadically, but it’s better not to commit to it and have it be a surprise, than to say I’ll do it and not deliver.

 

Amazon Wishlist

My wishlist isn’t new. I started it up around my birthday one year and I’ve never had anyone buy me anything from it. But some people like buying stuff from wishlists as a way of support, so I cleaned it up and linked to it. This was late enough in the year that I don’t know if it’ll do anything, but any item will be a bonus. The list is mainly review items from the serious to the silly.

 

Other Art Sites

This comes right at the end of the year, as it was part of setting things up for next year. After my art success, I wanted to put a few eggs in other baskets.

The first I looked at was Redbubble, but I discounted it as it’d be a tax nightmare. Redbubble is in Australia, so they should be withholding 5% of my income to pay as taxes (under the tax treaty agreement with the UK). They don’t do this, and they say it’s up to artists to pay those taxes. Except it’s not, because the method for paying those taxes is through withholding, which Redbubble should be doing. Tax avoidance is something I try to avoid, so no Redbubble for me.

Society6 is an American site, so it’s the usual 0% withholding deal. I’d like it better if they were keeping the proper forms on file, but either way, I’m only liable for taxes in my home country for any earnings here.

Society6 is both simpler and trickier than Zazzle. It’s simpler in that it has fewer products and has simplified the process of putting art on stuff. It’s trickier because that means it has fewer tools. Things can’t be tiled or layered, it doesn’t show bleed lines and the like, it doesn’t take vector images… there are a lot of handy things it won’t do. Files at the biggest size are a problem when it comes to previewing. I’ve found the best way is to attempt to preview, then back out and try again tomorrow. It appears to figure out the preview in the break.

All that said, the site does function and the products look reasonable. I do like that I can tweak product image placement after the product goes live. The product pages also show my other work very clearly to the customer: both what other designs I have on that item, and what other items have that design.

There is an affiliate scheme (curators) which has to be signed up for separately. I’ve signed up for this. Also, payments will come in more regularly, as there isn’t a threshold. I know some people prefer to buy from Society6, so hopefully it’ll spread my earnings a bit.

 

Writing

The result of working on everything else was I didn’t release any new books. What I did was work on projects as I felt like working on them. The pressure was off, which gave me some space to decide what I’d do next. I have a novella that will be released next year, at the same time as related cover art merchandise. This will be the first release that ties everything together.

After that, I’ll be working on the second book in my urban fantasy series. This series is not something I can see as ever being popular, but if I’m making money on art, I don’t need it to be.

I am still writing short stories, but the list of markets on my submissions list is a lot smaller now. It’s not the primary way I make money anymore, so I can be more selective.

 

Skip to the End

To round it all up, I deleted my old blog content and have replaced it with reviewing. This has dramatically reduced the death threats. I put art for sale on Zazzle, which is working out nicely. I’m on Patreon, which covers my website costs. Towards the end of the year, I put together a wishlist and started a second art store on Society6. I’m part of a few affiliate programmes related to these things, which is listed in my privacy policy.

Next year, I will have a novella out at some point. I’m going to draw lots of pictures of kittens.

Hello, Cupcake! – Karen Tack, Alan Richardson

Cupcake CoverFull Title: Hello, Cupcake!: Irresistibly Playful Creations Anyone Can Make
First Published: 24th April, 2008
Genre: Cookery Non-Fiction
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This is a book about decorating cupcakes. The designs tend towards the whimsical, with cute critters, cakes that look like other food, and similar things. I can’t fault the layout of the book, as it’s very clear. There are decent photographs of each design and templates for shaped parts where needed. The opening explains basics like how to ice in different ways and how to turn a food bag into an icing bag. However, the proof in the pudding (or cake) is trying the instructions, which is what I’ll focus on in the rest of the review.

My first attempt was the design called “Rabbit Holes”. These are the back ends of rabbits, placed among other cupcakes that look like grass. I tweaked the design a little, as it used crunched up chocolate biscuits for the bunny fur. One of the family doesn’t like chocolate biscuits and I don’t eat crunchy textures. So I swapped that out for white chocolate curls, and made white/pink Easter bunnies instead.

An issue that came up in the preparations is this is an American book and I live in the UK. The feet of the rabbits were circus peanuts, which is something I’ve never seen here. I used fondant icing and shaped my own bunny feet as an alternative. Corn syrup, used to stick the bobbles on the bunny tail, is also not a UK product, but that’s quite often available in the import section of supermarkets. I did use corn syrup, but would have got the same result with a little basic icing (icing sugar and water). This would also avoid buying an item when such a small amount was needed.

Overall, this is a very forgiving design. The sprinkles to make the rabbit fur hide any mess in the icing below. The iced grass cakes can be messy without it looking bad, as grass doesn’t have to follow any set pattern. I found the instructions clear, and it wasn’t difficult to modify as needed.

Bunny Cupcakes

Image Caption: Rabbit and grass cupcakes. The rabbit cakes are the back end of a bunny, with white chocolate curls as fur. A bobble tail (coated in pink nonpareils) is in the centre of the bunny cakes, with two back feet made of white fondant icing and pink chocolate details sticking over the edge of each cake. Around them are grass cupcakes, with piped green buttercream, and jelly beans and chocolate eggs on the grass.

I also tried the “Pumpkin Patch” design. The base cupcakes baked flat (more on that later), so mounding the icing as described was a challenge. I wasn’t happy with the result. My usual cupcake recipe would likely rise better, making the mounding process easier, and meaning it wouldn’t require too much icing to achieve.

Another problem with the pumpkins was the writing icing I used didn’t really match the orange of the chocolate curls I used to coat the pumpkins. This was a supply issue rather than being anyone’s fault, but not being able to get the right colours matters a lot more with this design. There isn’t as much room to use different colours or tweak the design.

All that said, the family thought they were good, so it wasn’t a complete disaster. But designs like the rabbit holes are much more forgiving when it comes to having to use alternate items.

Pumpkin Cupcakes

Image Caption: Pumpkin cupcakes. Orange cupcake cases contain mounded cakes covered in orange chocolate curls. Darker orange icing marks out the segments of the pumpkin. A piece of green liquorice with a pink centre is on top as a stalk.

I’d say the ease of the designs is going to depend on how easy it is to get the items used. Americans will find it a lot easier to follow the instructions. Even there, the claim that anyone can make these is an exaggeration, as it does take a bit of skill to get a cake looking reasonable. I also think some of the designs would be daunting to a beginner, as they used so many different items. Some of these could be simplified down and still look and taste fine.

Though this is mainly a decorating book, there are a few cupcake recipes. I’d note my standard recipe for cupcakes is to use equal amounts of self-raising flour, sugar and butter, with an egg or two. The recipes in this book were somewhat different. Partly due to cultural differences, as self-raising flour isn’t a thing everywhere, so it uses plain flour with raising agents added. However, some of the differences didn’t make very good cakes, in my opinion.

Vanilla cupcakes are a staple in my family, as they are one of the few that everyone likes. The recipe here uses butter and vegetable oil. The latter turned out to be an issue. It made the cake mix very runny, which was harder to handle. The cakes baked very flat, which wasn’t good for the pumpkin cakes, and meant they weren’t as fluffy. Also, the oil leached into standard paper cases, which didn’t look very good. They need thicker cases or foiled cases to work. There can be a bit of this with any cupcake baking, but it was much more pronounced using vegetable oil.

I sort of tried the lemon poppy-seed cupcakes, but I altered the recipe before using it. This is because the only lemon included is a bit of grated peel. This recipe is something I’d expect at fancy restaurants, where stuff only tastes of a hint of whatever it is, because bland is fashionable. With my whole working class upbringing thing, I like my lemon cake to actually taste of lemons, so I swapped the cream cheese for lemon curd.

I didn’t feel inspired to try the other cupcake recipes. I did try the almost-homemade vanilla buttercream, but it’s a little strange that it uses marshmallow fluff. Buttercream is very simple to make from scratch. This takes that and makes it more complicated. Which is a comment I’d have with a number of the recipes. It was interesting to try the variations, but they aren’t what I’d give a beginner, and I didn’t notice any improvement in taste or texture for the extra hassle.

When it comes to cake decorating, there’s a lot to like in this book. There are many cute designs, which can act as inspiration even if they’re not directly followed. It explains basics like how to ice things, and I particularly liked the tip of using food bags as an icing bag. I do think there’s a bit of a mismatch in places between the intended beginner audience and the complexity of the projects. Also, the recipes are something I’d skip.