What I’m Reading

I’m doing a shitty job of hitting my goal of writing weekly blog posts. We’re 12 weeks into the new year and I’ve only written eight posts (including this one) so I’m at 67%, which is like a D+. Gotta step up my game.

Anyway, I may not have been writing but I have been reading. I’ve finished 21 books so far this year! And even better than reading a lot, the ones I’ve been finding have all almost magically been great books. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu: My book club decided to read this one, or I never would have picked it up. And I’m so glad we did because it’s fantastic. It’s a memoir written by a very bright young man who is obsessed with the US-Mexico border and becomes a border agent. It’s very good. There’s some controversy around but because apparently it doesn’t reflect everyone’s experience with immigration, but how could it? The criticism is wasted, I think, because this is a thoughtful look into a problem I think lots of us have opinions about with very little actual experience.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: This is Oprah’s latest pick for her newly revived book club and a very solid novel, telling the story of a wrongfully imprisoned man and the struggles he and his wife go through as a result. This is much more about the human reactions of two well-intentioned people than it is about big issues like race and politics, but of course those come into play as well. It reminded me a lot of Toni Morrison’s Jazz, one of my favorites.
  • The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah: This is one of those books that I read and thought, “Hmm, that was a very nice novel,” but didn’t really rate it very highly at the moment I finished. It has however, really stuck in my head, and I find myself thinking about it and referring to it often in the weeks since I read it. It’s an intriguing story of a girl growing up in the shadow of her father’s uncontrollable anger, and is incredibly evocative of place — very rural Alaska.
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: Is there a name for a novel that follows a person’s story from birth to death, showing the full arc of their life? That’s one of my favorite types of books, and that’s what this book does for Cyril Avery, born to a 16 year-old unwed woman in post-war Ireland and eventually is a gay man living through the AIDS crisis in NYC. It’s beautiful, and heart-wrenching, and very reminiscent of the best John Irving novels.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: This was the first book I read in 2018 and it was PHENOMENAL. Beautifully written story on a difficult but important topic — the 16 year old African-American narrator’s friend is shot and killed by a white police officer. Thomas does a great job getting a wide range of perspectives and does an amazing job tackling a difficult subject in a voice targeted to young adults.

PS: Speaking of young adults, don’t those kids from the Parkland Florida shooting just inspire the shit out of you? Everytime I see Emma Gonzalez speak I get a lump in my throat. It makes me think of this great Tweet I saw a few weeks ago: I’m not sure why people are so surprised that the students are rising up — we’ve been feeding them a steady diet of dystopian literature showing teens leading the charge for years. We have told teen girls they are empowered. What, you thought it was fiction? It was preparation. @JenAnsbach (A Douglass College alum, what-what!) That last line just gives me the fucking goosebumps.

Regrets, I’ve Had a Few; or, My Writing History and What I’ve Learned from It

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My name is Elise, and I am a writer. Or at least I try to be. In some senses I am; I did work as a ghostwriter for nearly a decade and write upward of fifty books in that time. So I think that qualifies me. And I have notebooks and thumb drives full of first drafts and incomplete scenes and unfinished stories that I take out and read from time to time and wonder why on earth I didn’t follow through on them. And then I remember: I am a procrastinator. I also get mental blocks and writing blocks, and then I had a kid and all my free time got tied up in diaper changing and cleaning up vomit (baby had reflux, I don’t recommend it) and back-to-school nights and weekend swim classes. Throughout all of that I continued to write at work; I’ve always prided myself on the fact that with the exception of a few years in social services, I have spent the majority of my career supporting myself—and my family—as a writer. Not many people can say that.

But let me back up a little. Or a lot. Thirty-two years, to be exact. (Yes, I am that old.) To 1986, to my childhood bedroom, all white and pastel blue, my posters of Duran Duran and Michael J. Fox on the walls, and my radio constantly blaring the weekly Top 40. It was around that time that I first started journaling; I’m not sure what gave me the idea, but somehow I ended up with one of those black-and-white composition notebooks that I scrawled in endlessly, page after page about what music videos were playing on MTV and what I was doing with my friends and what was happening on my favorite TV shows. (I still have this notebook. I take it out from time to time and cringe at it.)

It was also around this time that I began devouring my local library’s YA section book by book. Paul Zindel and Lois Duncan and Judy Blume’s stories about periods and sex, and this horror series called Twilight, which had nothing to do with sparkling vampires but did cover all sorts of macabre subjects like witches and evil twins and astral projection. It was also around this time that I discovered S. E. Hinton’s novels, and while I read them all repeatedly—Tex; That Was Then, This Is Now; Rumble Fish—I was particularly obsessed with The Outsiders. I didn’t have a whole lot in common with Ponyboy Curtis, the main character—we were both poor, but my parents, though split up, were still alive, and I didn’t have to worry about getting into any knife fights with the rich kids in town. But his story appealed to me. I liked his world, where grown-ups didn’t exist and loyalty was everything, where friends would do anything for one another, where your family at least tried to protect you from the harshness of the world. I read the book over and over; I would literally finish the last word then turn back to the beginning or go back to reread my favorite parts.

And then after a while, just reading it wasn’t enough. All the feelings and ideas it brought into my head, they had nowhere to go, and I needed an outlet. So one day instead of writing in my journal about pop music and John Hughes movies, I started writing a story. About two brothers with no parents (I don’t remember how I killed them off) and their tight-knit group of friends. There wasn’t much of a story line, but there was tons of drama. It was a complete Outsiders rip-off, but I was totally into it. Soon it got its own notebook, a white vinyl binder with loose-leaf pages crammed with my bubbly early teenager handwriting, whole lines and paragraphs scratched out and rewritten in the margins. Even then, I was not good at first drafts. I would write a little and then go back and edit and revise endlessly, until I got that buzz in my head I still get when I do some good writing.

I worked on that story for the longest time, mimicking what I read in teen novels and saw in teen movies and on TV. The brothers had arguments and differences, they pined after girls, they felt more existential angst than even I did in my real life at the time, which is saying quite a lot; writing was a way for me to vent my feelings, yes, but it was also a rather effective means of escape from my less than happy home life, which more often than not was full of shouting and hitting and general unhappiness. When I was writing, I could create the world I wanted, with absent parents and older siblings who looked out for you instead of abusing you. Where kids had normal kid problems and the support they needed to get through them. My characters might have been flawed and imperfect and were definitely complete copies of S. E. Hinton’s, but they lived in the world I wanted to inhabit. Consequently, they became the realest and most important thing to me.

Then Ferris Bueller rolled into my life, and everything changed. (My influences, I am first to admit, have been somewhat…eclectic. If not downright ridiculous.) Having had a massive crush on Matthew Broderick since WarGames in 1983, I was beside myself when the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out; I saw it twice, two days in a row, the weekend it was released. And now I knew this…this was how I wanted my life to be. Ferris was smart and so sure of himself and flouted authority at every turn, and though I was outwardly a fat, shy kid with braces, acne, and a middling fear of the school principal, I was Ferris at heart. In my mind I was calling myself in sick to school and joyriding in my best friend’s dad’s sports car. But in reality, I knew my life couldn’t be anything like his, with his successful parents and nice house and popularity. (Remember, the sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, and dickheads all thought he was a righteous dude.)

So I did the next best thing: I wrote about it. My main character became a Ferris clone (named Scott, I believe…I don’t know why). Good looking, smart-assy, pretty girlfriend. No real story line that I can remember, just one rambling situation after another. But again, I loved it. It felt so important to me. And I worked at it in earnest whenever I had free time. Which at roughly fourteen years old was quite often. And I continued my journaling too, every day practicing in one way or another this craft I’d come to love. Words had become my life, stringing them together in pleasing ways the only thing I wanted to do.

Of course, as I was still a developing human, my writing continued to grow and change as well. I read new books, saw new movies, found new inspirations. At one point my family came into the possession of a home computer, an Apple Macintosh 128k, the neanderthal ancestor of the iMac, and so my writing notebook went from scribbled-on loose leaf to dot matrix printouts of my endless stories, though still with all the scratch outs and marginalia. (I still have all of these, too. It’s clear I was a tough editor even for myself, even back then.) Perhaps the biggest change of all came when my sister gave me Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire to read, and I followed that up quickly with The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned. After getting sucked into that world (pun intended, sorry), my writing style changed and, I like to think, matured. I was crafting longer, more florid sentences, paying more attention to imagery and details, exploring characters’ inner lives more than their outward appearances and actions. Crazy though she might be, Anne Rice taught me a lot; I can still see her influence in my writing today, and I don’t consider that a bad thing.

Did I write about vampires? Thankfully, no, with the exception of one very short story when I was in college, just to see what it was like, and even then it was more implied than outright. I guess it was good, too, because it got published in the school literary magazine. But I did write about tragic figures—homeless runaway teenagers, rich kids whose parents didn’t care about them, all sorts of young people in sad, difficult situations. I wrote and wrote and wrote about them, and when I wasn’t writing about them I was thinking about them, to the point that I had a whole mental soap opera going on as well, an ongoing saga that I never wrote down except in bits and pieces here and there, when I didn’t have anything else I was working on. I always thought this was a little strange, that I had this constantly growing novel contained entirely in my head, but then I read an interview with Anne Rice where she mentioned that she did the same thing. She too had a cast of characters who lived only in her mind, and she put them into situations and crafted their unwritten story entirely for her own enjoyment. So I felt a little vindicated.

I still find it a bit embarrassing, though, truth be told; this is the first and only time I’ve ever publicly admitted I have this story in my head. And yes, that’s have, present tense. I still, some twenty-plus years later, think about these characters and their stories whenever I have a little time to daydream. At this point they’re like a security blanket; thinking about them is comforting. But I also know they will probably never see the light of day.

So what do I actually write, then? Well, blog posts, for one. And I’m also working on a memoir, which is both rewarding and difficult. That’s where I’m trying to focus most of my efforts these days, as it is one of my yearly goals to finish the entire thing. So far I have two chapters, and I’ve started a third. Guess I’d better get going on that one.

I did go to a memoir writing class at a local library, which didn’t help me that much in learning about the genre but did make one thing abundantly clear to me: I missed out by not pursuing a writing degree. Or at least taking some classes along the way. Aside from taking a creative writing elective in high school, I signed up for one writing class in college that I went to twice and then dropped. It was at 8:00 in the morning, first of all—far too early to be creative. Second, I read some of the other students’ writing in those two classes, and well, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I couldn’t imagine having to read an entire semester’s worth of it.

But I should’ve stuck with it; I see that now. Because when I went to this memoir writing class, it was taught by a woman pursuing an MFA in creative writing, and I could tell just from what she spoke about that she had learned things as part of her education that experience alone had never taught me. Yes, I am a good writer, I believe that. But I am entirely self-taught. And while I never saw this as a bad thing—in fact, I’ve worn it as a point of pride—these days I’m seeing more clearly how some formal learning could have really improved what I do and given me some tools I didn’t even know I need in order to make my writing the best it could be.

Still, I won’t let that stop me. In lieu of the education I should have had ages ago, I read books on writing, and I read as much fiction and memoirs as I can, observing the ways that other people tell stories and the conventions they use in order to get their points across. And I practice, practice, practice. With every word I type, I’m practicing, I’m improving, I’m building upon what I know and what I’ve learned over the last thirty-two years, and that is an ongoing process. I might not have a formal writing education, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning about it, about this craft that has come to define my life. I’m not a best-selling novelist or a literary great, but I am a writer through and through, in heart and in mind. No matter what else I do, that is always how I’ll describe myself.

Books About Sketchbooks

I went to India last week for work. It was an AMAZING trip. When normal people make a trip like that they come back with jewel-toned scarves and golden bangles or delicious tea and spices. I unpacked and realized I brought back six new sketchbooks*.

You could say I have a problem, yes.

I’ve been obsessed with notebooks and sketchbooks pretty much my whole life but it’s really taken off in the past four or five years. I do all kinds of work in my sketchbooks — I write, I draw, I do collage, I paint. I have quite a few sketchbooks that I use to do art exchanges with friends. I have a couple I use to practice painting — one for watercolor, one for acrylics. I use one for a bullet journal, with notes and to dos for everything going on in my life. I keep another one in my bag for random notes or drawings (I got this idea from Austin Kleon). I keep a journal in a Moleskine daily planner.

A lot of my inspiration for sketchbooks comes from, well, books. Books about sketchbooks. Seems like there are just tons and tons of these out there. Sometimes they’re focused on other artist’s sketchbooks, sometimes they’re about visual journaling as a hobby, sometimes they are solidly in the memoir space. Most are beautiful — lots of full color photo spreads showing the range of styles and techniques that artists of all kinds use in their personal practices.

Here are some of my favorites:

An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists, Illustrators and Designers: This book is what really jump-started my sketchbook obsession. Each of the 50 or so featured artists is given a few pages to show spreads from their work as well as tell stories of their work and lives. Author Danny Gregory makes drawing accessible and fun and if you’re the slightest bit interested, you should start with him to get going. I also highly recommend his first book, Everyday Matters, the first of his memoir sketchbooks.

Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists: Gorgeous little collection of work from different artists. I like this one because it introduced me to Julia Rothman, a wonderfully-talented designer and author, and her on-hiatus site Book By Its Cover, which has a great archive of reviews on art books and interviews of artists about their sketchbooks.

The Sketchbook Project World Tour: I am a big fan of the Sketchbook Project, a crowd-funded project that includes more than 35,000 sketchbooks that are housed in a dedicated museum in Brooklyn and regularly tour the US in a van. This book has an overview of the project plus a selection of entries from artists around the globe. I don’t love the organization –by geography — but it’s still lovely to flip through.

Graphic: Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Great Graphic Designers: This is one of those books that is a precious object in itself. It’s a big, beautiful book that I keep next to the couch and find myself flipping through often, enjoying all of the bold photographs of more than 100 designers’ sketchbooks. There’s very little text, but there’s enough visual inspiration to make up for that.

Freehand: Sketching Tips and Tricks Drawn from Art: Smaller than the other books on the list, I find this to be a great source of quick inspiration. Each page shows a different art technique with an example from an artist’s sketchbook. This is one of my favorites and a really great little gift.

Do you have any favorites that I’ve missed?

*To be fair I bought three of the sketchbooks during a very short layover in Rome. Groggy after a ten hour flight from Delhi, my heart nearly stopped as I walked past a Fabriano store on the way to the gate for my next flight. It was all I could do not to buy one of absolutely everything.

Once Is Never Enough

One of my reading goals this year is to reread some old favorites, so I was pretty stoked when I found out that this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic (from thatartsyreadergirl.com) is Books I Could Reread Forever. Because I’ve already got a list of those going! But it was also a good excuse to go and peruse my bookshelves, looking for my literary comfort food—those books I can pick up and read again and again, in whole or in part, and never, ever get tired of them. Some because they’re so meaningful to me or remind me of where and who I was when I first read them; some because they make me laugh; some because they’re just plain beautiful. I’ll let you guess which one is which—here is my list, in no specific order:

  1. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. I might have mentioned this a hundred times already, but this is the book that made me want to be a writer back when I was thirteen years old, when I first read it. And since then I’ve read it so many times, I’ve lost count. It’s probably, for obvious reasons, the book that means the most to me in the world, which I guess is why I have so many copies of it.
  2. Collected Stories by Tennessee Williams. I had such a thing for Tennessee Williams when I was in high school, and reading this book takes me right back to senior year, to cutting class to hang out in Mr. Buhtanic’s office—the head of the English department who turned me on to the wonders of Tennessee and other authors I probably shouldn’t have been reading. (I remember him recommending Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. but telling me not to let anyone know he told me about it. He was the best.)
  3. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. When this book came out I put off reading it for a long time because it was so popular, and I thought it was just more dumb chick lit. But when I finally picked it up, I was hooked because I was Bridget Jones. In my twenties I smoked too much and drank too much and often found myself getting involved with good-looking but highly inappropriate men. I was clumsy and awkward, always ready with the wrong thing to say. I’m older and married now, but I still relate to Bridget probably more than I should, and rereading this book always brings back some entertaining if not blush-worthy memories.
  4. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I reread this one last year for the third or fourth time (listened to the audiobook, actually, and it made my best-of-the-year list) and was still incredibly impressed by it. The story is so immersive, so sweet and scary and so, so tragic all at the same time. Every time I read it’s like I’m getting to know Clare and Henry all over again, and their story fills me with a sense of wonder and longing and hope that it will work out for them, even though I know how it’s eventually going to end.
  5. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Another one I reread last year, this one for I believe the fifth time. At 524 pages, you’d think once or twice might be enough, but I feel like I could read this one every year and still enjoy it. Tartt is a queen of world-building, and her characters are insanely flawed but flawlessly executed; I love that all of them, even the ones you’re supposed to like, have something vile about them. No one is completely likable here, and I just love that.
  6. The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice. Particularly The Vampire Lestat (one of my personal classics). I was so obsessed with these books when I was fifteen-sixteen. I had never read anything like them: the florid language, the epic story lines, the beautiful but damned characters. The fact that Interview with the Vampire didn’t have a happy ending was a complete revelation to me the first time I read it; it seriously turned my literary world upside down. These books had such an influence on me, everything I wrote in my mid- to late teens sounded like Anne Rice (and I think sometimes, to some extent, it still does). I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Interview and loving every overdramatic minute of it.

Thoughts on Fiction

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My coworkers and I were chatting about books earlier this week and I found myself trying to explain my love of fiction, maybe for the first time ever. I’ve never had to explain this to anyone before. I assumed most people read fiction for fun. Maybe they do. I probably read more fiction than any other category.

I’ve always worked with smart people, and of course smart people come in all shapes and sizes with varied interests and concerns. Some smart people like business books, some like romance novels. But the people I work with now are, without exception, much more intellectual than I’m used to. There is no one on my team who will admit to reading mysteries on a cozy weeknight; they’re all reading about cognitive science or global economics.

So over beers my coworker is telling me about the book he’s reading now, Violence & Social Order: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. I could tell he was really enjoying learning from it and hadn’t just name-dropped it to sound impressive or superior. He was meeting a woman for a date the next evening and I had suggested he bring her a book as a way of starting a good conversation. When he told me what it was he was reading though I changed my mind. (I’m no expert in dating but starting off with a book about violence is probably not a great way to get laid. But I suppose I could be wrong. Who knows what those crazy millennials are into?)

I, meanwhile, was loving The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. A great thick multi-decade novel about the life of a man called Cyril Avery, set mostly in Ireland. The story opens with his 16 year-old pregnant mother being exiled from the church and her family and follows Cyril as he grows and experiences many different types of love and loss. “Maybe there are no villains in my mother’s story at all. Just men and women, trying to do their best by each other. And failing.” SO. GOOD. It’s definitely the best book I’ve read so far this year and I’ve been reading some great ones (I also loved The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui).

Anyway, my coworker was explaining that the thing he liked about his book on violence and social order was that the author created a clear framework and helped him understand the impact of one on the other. I started a friendly little argument with him about it — how could you trust this author? Don’t you feel like you need to read another book with a different perspective in order to know whether the first guy knows what he’s talking about? Arguing with him made me realize that one of the reasons I love fiction is that you very rarely get the perspective of just one person — it was written by a single person, of course, but in order to make the story work, it’s imperative that other characters have different perspectives. And when it’s done well — like in The Heart’s Invisible Furies — you end up with a fuller and more nuanced view of the world. I’m not gay, I don’t live in Ireland, and my mother was much older than 16 when she had me. I have literally nothing in common with Cyril Avery. But after reading his fictional story I feel like I know something about what a person like him might have experienced. I know just a little bit about what it’s like to be cast out of your family and church, about what it might be like to love parents who don’t understand children, what it might have been like to be in love with someone you could never tell.

To be clear, I try to never judge what anyone’s reading. What you read is your business, and you don’t need to justify it to anyone. It doesn’t make you a better or smarter person to read one thing over another. It’s just a matter of personal taste. And I’m glad my friend is reading about violence because lord knows we could use some people to figure out how to solve it. My point is just that sometimes getting into a friendly argument with someone who sees things differently than you helps you better understand why you love the things you love. And I unabashedly love fiction.

LGBT YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy: It’s a Thing, and I Love It

Toward the end of 2016, I was browsing for something to read—something to finish out the year right, to carry me through the holidays and into my weeklong staycation between Christmas and New Year’s. I hit all the usuals—the Kindle new releases and daily deals pages, my Amazon “to read” wish list, my Goodreads “Want to Read” shelf and posts from friends, my Audible wish list….

And that was where I found it, a book I’d saved some time ago thinking it sounded intriguing, but I wasn’t in any rush to listen it: We Are the Ants, by Shaun David Hutchinson. I read the description—Henry Denton has spent years being periodically abducted by aliens—and knew I had found my title.

I immediately downloaded We Are the Ants and started listening to it on my drive home from work that day. About thirty seconds into main character Henry’s opening monologue, I was hooked. Part of it was Gibson Frazier’s narration—deadpan and monotone and totally teenager but awesomely passionate at the same time—but mostly it was the writing. So good, so honest. Full of teen angst and vulnerability and…aliens? Yes, but it totally makes sense. Henry talks about being abducted by aliens like he’s talking about what he did at school that day, like it’s just something that happens in the normal course of his life (which, in fact, it is).

And that’s how the story approaches the fact that he’s gay as well. It’s what I love most about We Are the Ants and most of the other books in this genre that I’ve read: In them, being LGBT (any variation thereof) is not a big deal. It’s not something to be overcome or outed but just part of the normal everyday lives of the characters. Just like their height and hair color, they are gay, or trans, or asexual, and it’s not a big deal. I mean, it is a big deal that books like this exist. But as part of the storyline, it’s really just another character trait, and I can’t tell you how much I love that.

That said, here are five great LGBT YA sci-fi/fantasy novels I’ve read and/or listened to:

  1. We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson. The book that started it all for me and the one to which I compare all other LGBT YA sci-fi/fantasy novels. It is the bar. It is perfection. It is a gay John Hughes movie with aliens.
  2. Wonders of the Invisible World by Christopher Barzak. This one made my top seven favorites list for 2017, and with good cause. The writing is amazing, the story so deep and sensitive and sweet. And I might have mentioned this before, but Jarrod, the love interest? Totally dreamy.
  3. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. This was the first Rowell book I read, and I didn’t realize until I was done with it that I had gone about things a little backward. See, she has this other book called Fangirl, where the main character writes fan fiction about this character called Simon Snow—a sort of Harry Potter knockoff. Well, Carry On is the fan fiction novel she is writing throughout Fangirl. I didn’t know this when I read Carry On, so I just took it at face value—and loved every word of it. A gay wizard and a gay vampire with a searing love/hate relationship? Yes, thanks.
  4. More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera. The way this one starts out, you think it’s just a good, solid urban coming-of-age story, but then that sci-fi stuff sneaks up on you. It’s worked in so seamlessly, it makes it a totally believable part of the story.
  5. The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. The genius of this novel is that it really is about the rest of us who just live here—while the heroic kids are off saving the world, this story focuses on the other kids who are just living their lives, with all the requisite teen angst, confusing love…and a guy who’s actually a god worshiped by cats. It’s kind of awesome.

Bonus book: At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson, who has become the Brad Pitt of the YA literary world for me: Just like I will see any Brad Pitt movie without even knowing what it’s about because there’s no such thing as a bad Brad Pitt movie, I will read anything Shaun puts out, because I can trust it will be good. Also looking forward to his upcoming title The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza, due out on February 6.