Wednesday, March 8, 2017

[Review] Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

From Goodreads:
Can a text message destroy your life?

Carver Briggs never thought a simple text would cause a fatal crash, killing his three best friends, Mars, Eli, and Blake. Now Carver can’t stop blaming himself for the accident and even worse, there could be a criminal investigation into the deaths.

Then Blake’s grandmother asks Carver to remember her grandson with a ‘goodbye day’ together. Carver has his misgivings, but he starts to help the families of his lost friends grieve with their own memorial days, along with Eli’s bereaved girlfriend Jesmyn. But not everyone is willing to forgive. Carver’s own despair and guilt threatens to pull him under into panic and anxiety as he faces punishment for his terrible mistake. Can the goodbye days really help?

When I read a contemporary YA novel, I usually go into it with mild expectations because contemporary is such a broad category, and each book can be completely different from the next. If anyone follows me on Twitter or Goodreads, you probably saw me freakout over Jeff Zentner's debut novel The Serpent King. It was set near my hometown in Tennessee (with a few mentions of my hometown, no less), and it was hopeful, tragic, atmospheric, and I loved every minute of it. It also made me cry, which is a feat for any book to accomplish. It easily became one of my favorite contemporary YA novels of all time.

So when Stefani of Caught Read Handed sent out a general invitation to join an ARC tour for Zentner's next book, Goodbye Days, on her Twitter (thank you Stefani!!!), I jumped at the chance to read it. Like TSK, Goodbye Days is set in Tennessee and sounded even more tragic. Now knowing the quality of Zenter's writing and storytelling abilities, I knew that even if it didn't reach instant-favorite level, it would still be a good read.

But Zentner delivered again. I honestly don't know which book of his two I prefer more. Goodbye Days didn't make me cry, though it came close, and it book spoke to me in a different way than TSK. The Serpent King had a distinct, almost claustrophobic atmosphere made up of small-town life, the weight of hopes and dreams, the potential to live beyond the life we are born into, and senseless loss. All of those factors made the otherwise completely realistic story feel ethereal at times.

Goodbye Days differs in that there is no hazy distance between you and the stark reality of the tragedy in the book. The reality of heavy emotions starts on page one and never lets up. While grief and loss fill each chapter, Zentner also skillfully layers in laughter and hope. As we follow Carver through his coping, and not coping, with the loss of his best friends, we get to see flashbacks of him with the boys. Those moments were electric and alive, and even more than that, they were raw and mesmerizing in their simplicity and joy.

Just like in The Serpent King, Zentner's writing feels effortless but makes an impact. I flagged several lines in the text, many feeling like gut punches. The dialogue is on-point, and I loved how he integrated the setting of Nashville into the story. One of my favorite things about this book is how well Zentner represents what grief, anxiety, and panic attacks can feel like. Some of Carver's thoughts felt like they were pulled out of my own head, and his experience with panic attacks mirrored my own. Zentner also shows that getting professional help for mental issues can be helpful and useful, not stupid and pointless like a lot of YA books posit, and I'm glad Zentner included this purely positive representation.

When it came to the characters, I felt like I could relate to almost every one of them in some way or another. I highly identified with Carver and his struggles with mental health in the face of grief. All of the main characters and many of the side characters felt fully formed. The only exception for me was Jesmyn because she just didn't stick with me the way all the others did. Carver was definitely the closest to my heart, but my favorite character was his sister, Georgia. Some of her lines were laugh-out-loud worthy, and I loved her fierce love for her family and her confidence and wisdom. She is who I wish I was back when I was in college.

The only slight drawback of the book was a subplot revolving around Carver and Jesmyn. It wasn't bad, I just didn't feel that it fit perfectly into the story, and the resolution of it wasn't as satisfying as the emotional journey Carver experiences with the other characters and with himself. But due to the many, many wonderful lines and feelings-inducing scenes, this was just a blip in an overall amazing story.

My words do barely any justice in describing the experience of reading Goodbye Days. I can't express how much this book made me feel, and I'm not a re-reader, but I'll be picking this up again and again because it is that wonderful. Goodbye Days is an experience unto itself, and despite it being all about tragedy and grief, the ultimate feeling of hope and recovery make every potential tear worth it.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


If you've read any number of young adult books, it comes as no surprise to find that there is often some kind of romantic plot/subplot within the text. Since I write YA books, there is some expectation of that in my stories as well. I plan to have (at least) one in my current project. I have my main character, A, and she is eventually going to wind up with boy Z.

Already I've got several little scenes of them falling for each other, but the more I thought about them riding off together at the end of the series, the more my gut was telling me something was off. I didn't question if they would remain together (they definitely will), but I couldn't see what their lives would be like at all.

I'm not one of those authors who knows the entire future of my characters post-book. I don't really feel a need to know, but I do need whatever conclusion I give them in the book to feel right, to feel true. When I started digging through my own brain, I realized the problem I was having with A and Z wasn't what was missing after the action of the books, but what was missing within the books.

I've never pictured A and Z kissing.

When I figured that out, other things became clear to me. They prefer to be touching if they can be, and hugging is their favorite. The love to laugh and banter, they help each other through trauma and pain, and by the end of the series they are deeply in love.

So why no kissing?

And then it was like a lightening bolt struck me on the head: A and Z are asexual. Everything fell into place when I used this word to describe them.

In case you don't know, I am gray-sexual or gray-ace, which is under the umbrella of asexuality. (If you want more detailed info on what all of that means, click HERE.) But it had never, not once, occurred to me that my main character and her final love interest could possibly be ace. I'd considered it with other characters, but not them.

I had been taking the sexuality (implied or explicit) found in the majority of YA love stories and applying it to A and Z, expecting them to fall in line. But why should they?

It seems like such an easy and obvious conclusion to come to, considering I'm ace myself, but it took me a while. I'm glad my characters, or my inner ace, put up enough fuss to show me where I was going wrong with A and Z's love story.

Hopefully I'll get to share them, in all their ace glory, with you eventually.

For more information on asexuality, please visit

Saturday, February 11, 2017

In the Shadow of Doubt

I don't know anyone who isn't touched by the political and social turmoil going on in the country right now. For me, the disappointment and anger at the election, the subsequent awful things happening within our government, and the continual worry that marginalized people are not going to be protected have weighed heavy in my mind for months.

I've tried to be proactive about my worry: protesting, making calls and writing letters to my representatives, joining organizations that help marginalized people, donating when I can, being present at events to show support to people who need it.

The work of pushing back at all the bad I see is not that exhausting because being with other people who are also working to those ends is encouraging and invigorating (being an ambivert does have its advantages). But the worry, the mental strain, and the necessary constant vigilance is like air drying out clay, making me brittle and crumbly all around (shout out to Mad Eye Moody - no wonder he was a little cracked). All of this is in addition to my personal life, which has seen its fair share of extra stress lately. I already deal with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, and the combined strain of everything near and far is making it difficult to keep it (me) together.

So how in the world am I supposed to write? This is a question I've seen many writers struggling with. And like many, I am in a valley, not on a mountaintop, when it comes to my relationship with writing. Which leads me to a scarier question:

Am I cut out to be a writer at all?

This valley that I mentioned, I feel like I've been in it for a while. If you name a method of writing, of ways to get words on the page, I've tried it. Nothing, literally not one of them, has stuck. Even in days of less stress and worry, I'm terrible about actually doing the work. Maybe it's just that my life and my brain are too scattered and messy for anything resembling discipline, plans, and good habits.

Or maybe...maybe I just can't hack it.

Maybe I'm not supposed to be a writer.

And that, my friends, is a terrible thought. If I'm not supposed to be a writer, why do I have stories and characters and scenes filling my brain when they get a chance? I may not have a great process that helps me fill blank pages, but planning what I'm going to write and creating characters and settings and plot lines is something I do all the time.

So I don't think I could ever stop being a writer, even if I tried to quit. Knowing that is nice, but it doesn't help me with my main problem: the physical act of writing, specifically, finishing a novel. It is quite possible that I'm not cut out to write novels. It is a lot, a lot, a lot of work, and as I said before, my life and brain are not wired to do anything that requires good habits and personal discipline. But I still love doing it, even if I'm not great at getting it done.

When I dug deeper, I realized I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to conform to this idea that I have of what being a writer is, and that by not living up to that imagined standard, I've opened up this floodgate of guilt and doubt. I've structured my life in such a way that the things that I believe need doing, for both the wider world and the people in my life, should take the top priority, not writing.

But if writing isn't my most important thing, does that mean it is just my hobby? Does that mean I don't take it seriously enough? Does that mean that because I don't treat writing like a job, I won't ever "make it" (whatever that means to me)?

These questions bothered me until I removed the self-imposed pressure. And once removed, the answer I discovered was: Who cares! So what if my writing looks like just a hobby on the outside; I know I take it seriously, even if I can't devote as much time to it as I wish I could. I also know that I'd rather my novel take me way longer to complete than to give it up all together.

So I've decided to stop pressuring myself to be the kind of writer that I am not and to stop feeling guilty when things aren't happening as quickly as I would like them to. I know what kind of outcome I would like to see when I finish my novel, and I've set goals for myself, but I have also made peace with the fact that this valley may be all I experience for a while.

I've decided to enjoy the journey instead of fretting about when it will end. I will do what I set out to accomplish, even if it takes longer than my doubt tells me it should.

Doubting myself is okay, but I won't allow my doubts to tell me who or what I am.

I am a writer, one thought, one word, at a time.