A Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez, Author of ‘Out of Darkness’

This post originally appeared on my other book blog, ShelfLife@Texas. Go check it out if you’re in the mood for some brain food!

ashleypicIn March 1937 a gas leak caused a massive explosion that killed almost 300 children and teachers at a school in New London, Texas. Amidst the backdrop of this catastrophic event, a Mexican-American girl falls in love with a Black boy in a segregated oil town.

In a town where store signs mandate “No Negroes, Mexicans, or dogs,” Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know not to cross the deeply entrenched color lines. Yet the heart wants what it wants and societal barriers are no match for young love.

Like a ticking time bomb, the tension builds as their love blossoms. And when tragedy strikes, the young lovers struggle to find a shred of light amidst the shroud of darkness. Will they overcome the forces of hate and intolerance that loom over their town, their school—even their own homes? You’ll have to read the book to find out! Out of Darkness hits shelves Sept. 1, 2015.

The author Ashley Hope Pérez—who just so happens to be a proud Longhorn—was kind enough to share some insight into this multifaceted tale of love, loss, family and the ugly forces that drive people apart. Read on to learn more about the book—and how many of the themes touch on issues we face today in American society.

What made you decide to write a story about the 1937 New London school explosion? 

I grew up about 20 minutes from New London. The explosion—which happened at 3:17 on March 18, 1937—was always a kind of shadowy event that I’d hear whispered about from time to time but rarely discussed openly. At one point, I remember driving by the site of the disaster with my father and him telling me the story of a little girl who could only be identified because she had colored her toenails with a crayon. I didn’t know many specifics of the explosion, only that it had killed hundreds of children. When I returned to the event as a novelist, I was interested in more than the explosion itself: I wanted to examine how this kind of tragedy might ripple through a community, bringing out the best in some and the worst in others and catalyzing more loss. 

How can readers relate to the characters in your book?

Okay, first some quick introductions. Four characters are at the heart of the story in Out of Darkness. There’s Wash Fuller.The teenage son of the New London Colored School’s principal, Wash has always lived in East Texas and prides himself on knowing his way around both the woods and the prettiest girls from Egypt Town, where most of the Black community lives. Wash’s days as a womanizer come to an end when he meets Naomi Vargas, a beautiful and painfully shy girl from San Antonio who has just moved to New London with her younger twin half-siblings, Beto and Cari (short for Roberto and Caridad). The three of them have been brought to East Texas by Naomi’s white stepfather after he has a conversion experience and decides he ought to bring his family back together.

Wash is easy for readers to relate to; he’s funny, loyal and passionate. Naomi is a quieter character, but readers quickly identify with her determination to protect the twins and her ability to persevere in spite of considerable hardship in the present and secrets from her past. Once Wash and Naomi fall in love, it would be impossible not to want them to have a future together. Romantic love intertwines with the love both Naomi and Wash feel for the twins, who also play an important part in the story. Some of the most beautiful parts of the book are when the four of them are together in the woods of East Texas.

What do you hope readers will take away from Out of Darkness?

I hope that readers will admire Naomi and Wash for their efforts to seize some joy for themselves at a time when the happiness and well-being of brown people was of little importance to most of American society. I hope that the barriers and flat-out cruelty that Naomi and Wash encounter in the world of 1937 may galvanize readers’ commitment to supporting people’s right to love whomever they love and build families around that love. That’s what Naomi and Wash try to do for the twins—make a family together in the secret still places along the Sabine River. 

Are there any themes in Out of Darkness that are relevant to current issues in our society? 

One of the most problematic views of racism is that it is “a thing of the past.” Out of Darkness shows racism and prejudice in the past, but it also creates opportunities to recognize the distressing continuities between our history and the present. We continue to see racialized violence in the news, both hate crimes like the church shooting in Charleston and acts of brutality by police and others that underscore disparities in how different members of our community are treated. This injustice and the distrust it breeds have deep roots. Out of Darkness asks readers to reckon with some of those roots as they existed here in Texas.

Beyond the blatant discrimination and violent expressions of white supremacy that unfold in the characters’ experiences, the novel offers glimpses of systematic discrimination, as in the tripartite segregation of schools into white, “colored,” and “Mexican” in cities like San Antonio. I taught for three years in an inner-city school in Houston, and I can tell you that the consequences of that segregation and the disenfranchisement it produced are still being felt in African American and Latino communities. 

What are you working on now?

A new novel, this time exploring Latino experiences in the Midwest. (Although born a Texan, I’ve been in the Midwest for nearly a decade, and apparently that’s about how long it takes for a new place to show up in my fiction.) The new book also involves family and tragedy, but that’s about all I can say about it at this point because I’m wildly superstitious about discussing details of work in progress. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I hope Texans will not be scared off by some of the difficult issues in the novel and that they will instead embrace the chance to dive into our history in the company of characters worthy of their love and attention. Some people have suggested that Out of Darkness is a “brave” book, but I think it’s equally important to acknowledge that reading about painful features of our past takes courage.

And, of course, a big thank you for the chance to share a bit about Out of Darkness with Longhorn readers. Many of my formative reading and writing experiences took place right on the UT campus between the wonderfully deteriorated walls of Parlin Hall. So… Hook ‘em!

Want a sneak peek into the book? Visit the Texas Observer to read an excerpt!

About the author: In addition to Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of the YA novels The Knife and the Butterfly, and What Can’t Wait. She grew up in Texas and taught high school in Houston before pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative literature. She is now a visiting assistant professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University and spends most of her time reading, writing and teaching on topics from global youth narratives to Latin American and Latina/o fiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Arnulfo, and their son, Liam Miguel.

Gizzy’s Roundup of Witches, Warlocks and Weirdos!

gizzyGizzy and I have been going through a paranormal/fantasy phase lately. Why? I have no idea. Maybe because February and March are the crappiest months of the year and we need a total escape from reality. Or perhaps Gizzy thinks he’s a wizard now that he has his own Dumbledore hat. I’m not going to bother trying to make sense out of it all. Either way, here are a few books that we recently polished off. If you’re in the mood for magic, mayhem and swoonalicious love triangles, here ya go:

The Line by J.D. Horn

18010355I scored this audiobook for a song on Audible, and well you know that saying, “you get what you pay for”? Well that doesn’t apply here. This book is incredible!  The narrator, the rollercoaster pacing, the atmospheric Savannah setting—everything about it kept me glued to the story for hours on end. The main character, Mercy, is somewhat of an embarrassment to her family of powerful witches.  Unlike her magically-blessed twin sister, she has very little power of her own. Some major power players in her clan of witches seem to be harboring deep, dark secrets. And when the head matriarch (aka “the anchor”) is brutally murdered, Mercy starts piecing together some clues that eventually lead her to a series of bombshells about her family’s tangled web of lies. In the last third of the book, my jaw dropped at least 50 times when the skeletons came dancing the conga-line out of the closet. Aside from the shock factor, I really enjoyed the Deep South setting, and Mercy’s “Liars Tour.” As an unapologetic dorky tourist, I would love to tour around Savannah, drinking a hurricane while listening to outrageous fabrications and urban legends about the city’s landmarks. Too bad she had to hang up her tour guide hat in the second book.

The Source by J.D. Horn

18803931I’ll just come right out and tell you that this book was a big disappointment. Right from the get-go the story just seemed to be all over the place. In the first book, it was so much easier to immerse myself into the story as it gradually unfolded before taking off like a freight train. This book, however, went from zero to sixty. All of a sudden, I’m thrust into a series of crazy events full of a bunch of characters. Keeping track of it all was a struggle to say the least. Bombshells continue to drop at warp speed and the story just gets more and more convoluted with every chapter. The love triangle with Emmitt, the robotic golem, is a little too creepy for my taste. There was a point when I almost aborted the mission of completing this book, but morbid curiosity kept me going.  Why is Mercy’s supposedly-dead mother coming out of the woodwork? Can she be trusted? Is her entire family out to get her? Who can she trust?!?  Is it weird that I didn’t enjoy this book, but yet I’ll probably end up reading the third installment because I need answers to a zillion more questions? Clearly J.D. Horn must be doing something right since I’m inevitably going to read the whole trilogy.

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

23164983Again, here is a second installment that didn’t measure up to the first. It’s not that it wasn’t entertaining. Hmm…how should I put my finger on this? It’s just that the first book was SO amazing! The world building, the character development, the mysterious school of weirdo children with super-human powers—all of it was so mesmerizing. This next adventure moves along in the same fashion as The Hobbit. Lots of “out of the frying pan, into the fire,” action sequences.  Throughout the book, the kids are jumping into different time loops in their quest to restore Mrs. Peregrine back into her human form. Trapped in a bird’s body, she has only a short amount of time until her humanity withers away. Without Mrs. P., the kids’ sanctuary from the storm of hollows (evil peculiar children-eating monsters) and wights (double-evil peculiar children-murdering fiends) will be lost forever.  Gripes aside, I did enjoy learning more about the villains and finding out their reasons for targeting peculiar children. After that cliffhanger of an ending, I absolutely HAVE to read the next book. What can I say? I’m a total sucker for trilogies. Oh and I would be remiss not to give a nod to the author’s ingenious inventions with the found old-timey photographs. My favorite character, who I hope to see in the next book, is the pretentious pipe-smoking dog.  Anyone who has read his books would probably agree that Ransom Riggs’ imagination is a force to be reckoned with!

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahan

18007535Remember that old campfire story The Monkey’s Paw? That one never fails to give me the shivers, even though I’ve heard it about a bajillion times. There’s something very creepy about the concept of bringing a loved one back from the dead and not knowing who—or what—will be showing up at your doorstep. That’s why this book gave me the heebie jeebies, especially when dead creatures started coming back to life, scratching from inside the closet door. JEEPERS! This is not a book to read alone if you’re a chicken like me. So in terms of creepiness, I give this book four stars. As for the characters, well that’s a whole other story. Aside from the teenage girl and her baby sister, the characters who carelessly messed around with witchcraft all seemed to be a bunch of imbeciles, in my humble opinion. Yes, they were crazy with grief, but that didn’t give them the right to mess with black magic. To be honest, I was pleased when they all got what was coming to them. Aside from those fools, I have another issue with the book. Since the story revolved around death and bereavement, the gloominess of it all really bummed me out.  After reading this, I had to immediately cheer myself up with a light and fluffy romance.

Teaser Tuesdays (No. 3) Broken by A.E. Rought

tuesdays

13515848It’s Tuesday and you know what that means! Time for Teaser Tuesdays!!! This bookish meme, hosted by MizB over at Should Be Reading, is all about tantalizing readers with two “teaser” sentences from a current read. I’m about halfway through Broken and am loving the deliciously spooky Halloween ambiance! If you’re looking for a good YA paranormal mystery filled with teen angst and unearthly romance, check this one out. It’s only two bucks on Nook, so you really can’t go wrong!

Here are the rules:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two “teaser” sentences
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS!
• Share the title & author, too, so other bloggers can add the book to their TBR lists if they like your teasers!

 And here’s my teaser:

Jack-o’-lanterns leer from porches, glowing faces following my every step, as if they see the hollow space in me and find it familiar. The Peterson’s pumpkin is particularly vicious looking, with narrow pointy teeth and angular flaming eyes, squatting like a gargoyle on the front step.

What’s on your nightstand? Care to share some teasers with me?

Beautiful Creatures: Movie & Book Review

Beautiful-Creatures-2013-Posters-alice-englert-32920228-632-960When I found out Beautiful Creatures was going to hit the silver screen, I knew it would be a gargantuan disappointment. I mean, come on, how in the world can moviemakers crunch a 500+ word tome into a two-hour flick without garbling the plotline and obliterating important characters? As I expected the movie distorted the entire story, characters and plot threads into a hot mess of teenage melodrama. Not since Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, have I seen such a warped movie adaptation of a book.

But I have to confess,  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t entertained. Despite the choppy scenes and unanswered questions, the movie put an interesting spin on some of the characters and left me hanging with an entirely different ending. I’m not going to spoil it for you, but I will say that the ending in the movie is far more interesting that where they left off in the book.

To show you the hits and misses, let me break it down for you like this.

beautiful-creatures-Alden-Ehrenreich-Alice-Englert-ethan-lena-warner-brosThe Cast

How awesome is the Emily Blunt lookalike actress playing Lena?!? With her porcelain complexion and luxurious dark hair, she fits the profile perfectly. But what about the electric green eyes and crescent moon-shaped birthmark? How could the moviemakers overlook these significant features? Symbolic of Robert Frost’s “nothing gold can stay” prose, her stark green eyes mark her temporary state of purity. She’s constantly scribbling “nothing green can stay” on the walls with her Jedi mind-trick powers, foreshadowing her inevitable fate as a dark castor.

 Literary symbolism is a huge part of the book, but the moviemakers didn’t really bother with the many references to T.S. Eliot and Faulkner. I guess it kind of makes sense considering that it would probably be lost on their teenage audience.

As for Ethan, I was not impressed by this guy at all. I pictured more of a tall, lanky, disheveled writer-type, not a short pretty boy. Sure he’s cute and all, but his big, cheesy smile has all the charms of a schmoozy used car salesman. Ethan is so much more loveable in the book because of his tragic backstory. After his mom dies in a car accident, his dad completely shuts down into a walking catatonic state. The authors did a beautiful job making me fall in love with Ethan and his sad life as an orphan. Hopefully in the next movie, they’ll delve more into his mother’s death – and Sarafine’s possible involvement.

Ethan-and-Lena-1024x681The Romance

I wasn’t digging the leading man, so maybe I’m a little biased, but the romance just kind of seemed forced in the movie. You get a better feel for their magnetism in book, especially because they can speak to each other telepathically – and when they touch, sparks literally fly! In the movie, Ethan is about as sexy as a sweet little puppy dog.  

review-beautiful-creatures2-e1360830491815Ridley Duchannes

I have to tell ya, Ridley is much more interesting in the movie. Emmy Rossum does a bang-up job playing an evil-to-the-core seductress. In the book, she’s more of a rebellious punk rock princess who walks a fine line between good and evil. Yet in the movie, she clearly reached a point of no return and is a shining example of what happens when a caster girl goes dark. I really liked the flashback scene where Lena describes Ridley’s moonlit transformation from a sweet farm girl into a stone-cold killer. She has no reservations about manipulating horny boys into early graves, and I’m interested to what’s next for her in Beautiful Darkness!

BEAUTIFUL-CREATURES1Amma

Considering that it’s probably politically incorrect to cast a black woman as a housemaid in a very white bread movie set in the South, I can see why the changed Amma’s role from the loyal housekeeper to the town librarian. In fact, this was a very clever way to fold two characters into one.

To speed things along, they had to get rid of  some characters, including Marian, the town librarian, castor watchkeeper, and Ethan’s mother’s best friend. Since they decided to cut out Ethan’s backstory, I guess that makes sense. I think Vioa Davis did a great job playing a wizened mystical voodoo lady of the swamps, but I was picturing more of a little old eccentric grandmotherly woman who rules the house with an iron fist. It’s a shame the movie had to leave out her complex relationship with Macon Ravenwood, and her super-cool time-bending powers.

BC-17715rV2-jpg_211413The Library

I was so excited to see how they were going to create the library in the movie. Considering that the story is set in a small Southern town, I pictured a two-story Carnegie library with a spiral staircase and walls of books. But nope, they just decide to plop the library in a dumpy nondescript building. And that’s not the worst part! The castor library, described as a dark, dank crypt-like labyrinth of books, is just another brightly-lit extension of the library. Boring!!! With the wonders of CGI graphics, you’d think that they could come up with something more Harry Potteresque than that.

Oh and what’s the deal with the Book of Moons? Of course they had to save time by omitting characters and scenes, but why did they have to leave out the creepiest, most deliciously atmospheric scene in the whole story? I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll just say that Ethan and Lena had to go on a rather gruesome grave-digging quest to find the book.

BEAUTIFUL-CREATURES2Macon Melchizedek Ravenwood

Of all the magical characters, I found Uncle Macon to be the most fascinating. As the story unfolds, he gets more and more complex, leaving me with more questions than answers. Is he a castor or some sort of dark angel? What’s going on with his strange connection with Ethan’s dead mother? Of course, he isn’t nearly as interesting in the movie, which basically pigeonholes him as just another castor. And what about Boo Radley, Macon’s ginormous dog? I was really hoping he’d make it to the big screen, but hopefully he’ll make an appearance in the next movie.

imagesCAL8KKVWThe Mean Girls

Now here’s where the moviemakers made some smart choices in cutting the fat. The book is long, and in some spots, it gets really tedious. The movie left out a lot of the stereotypical mean girl antics and high school party shenanigans, which is totally fine by me. I was glad to see that the movie didn’t bother with Lena’s surprise birthday bash, which seemed to go on and on and on forever. However, the book beautifully captures the evils of small-mindedness and bigotry.  It’s a sad fact of life that we live in a society filled with judgmental, unforgiving people. And what better way to bring this message home than by sticking a witch in a god-fearing bible belt? 

I would love to go into detail about the plot twists and alternate ending, but I don’t want to ruin it for you. But I will say that if you resolve to only watch the movie, you are missing out big time!

 

 

Awake at Dawn by C.C. Hunter

10800916There’s a reason why C.C. Hunter’s Shadow Falls series is on the best-selling lists. Her main character is living every teenage girl’s fantasy. Tall, blond and gorgeous, she’s the prettiest – and most mysterious – girl at Camp Shadow Falls. Two of the camp’s hottest boys are chasing after her – plus she’s got the coolest best friends a girl could ever ask for.  Oh – and did I mention that a side-effect of her hidden super-powers is growing an extra cup-size over night? So not fair…the only things that sprouted on my teenage body overnight were pimples.

If you’re not familiar with the Shadow Falls series, here’s the scoop: Kylie is a camper at Shadow Falls, a place where teenage fairies, vamps, werewolves, shapeshifters and witches can learn how to hone their supernatural powers. They can do some really cool stuff like reading each other’s brain waves, shifting into four-legged beasts, and communing with ghosts..

Unlike her fellow campers, Kylie’s supernatural identity is a total mystery. Desperate for answers, she hires a PI to look into her ancestral past. And as her powers begin to develop, she comes up with more questions than answers. What kind of preternatural species can talk to dead people, run at warp speed, and grow taller and more boobalicious overnight? No one – not even the camp counselors – seems to know.

In this second installment, Kylie is plagued by a new ghost who insists that someone she loves is on the cusp of death. It would be helpful if the blood-drenched spirit could give her more details. But like everything else, Kylie must figure it out on her own. And if that’s not enough, she’s facing some serious boy drama. Lucas, a gorgeous werewolf with smoldering blue eyes, inexplicably skipped town with the world’s bitchiest she-wolf. She wants more than anything to write him off completely, but his love letters and dream-scaping invasions keep her hanging on.

Wouldn't Jared Padalecki make a great Derek?!?

Wouldn’t Jared Padalecki make a great Derek?!?

And then there’s Derek. Don’t let the half-fairy status fool you; this guy is no sissy with sparkly wings. He’s big, buff and completely smitten with Kylie. I have to say that the shower scene is one of the hottest romantic moments I’ve encountered in paranormal teen lit. With his brown shaggy hair, chiseled features and barrel chest, I kept picturing a half-naked, dripping wet Jared Padelecki. Supernatural fans, you know who I’m talking about! Kylie must have some crazy superpowers to walk away from…shall I say…a very promising opportunity.

Considering the formula of YA paranormal love triangles, I’m willing to bet she’s going to end up with the mysterious bad boy, but oh how I wish she could just be with Derek. He’s sweet, romantic and oh-so-very perfect! If the author really wants to give her readers a plot twist, she should make Kylie choose the nice guy in the end.

Aside from the love triangle, Kylie is also helping her friends deal with some serious problems. Miranda is crying into her pillow every night over a bad breakup. Della fears the death angels will make her atone for the sins of her past. And Sara, Kylie’s mortal BFF back home, is no longer returning her phone calls. Aye yay yay – teenage life is tough!

The plot thickens when the prophetic ghost gets more and more demanding. Soon someone Kylie loves will die – and she only has a short window of time to stop it from happening. And if that’s not enough, she’s also being stalked by a rogue vampire who is out killing mortals on the streets.

There’s a lot going on in this book, but the author does a fine job weaving the plot threads into a cohesive story. With every chapter she hits me with a cliffhanger, leaving me with no other option but to tear through the pages to get some answers. Warning: if you have weekend plans or chores to tackle, DO NOT read this book. I took this thing with me on the plane, and it was torture having to put it away when I had to make a connecting flight! All in all, this is one of the best paranormal series out there. If you’re looking for a good character-driven novel filled with plot twists, romance and mystery, give Shadow Falls a try!

Born at Midnight (Shadow Falls #1) by C.C. Hunter

sundaysIn honor of Sunday – a day I reserve for reading and lollygagging – I bring you a short and sweet book review! 

8705784From the publisher: One night Kylie Galen finds herself at the wrong party, with the wrong people, and it changes her life forever. Her mother ships her off to Shadow Falls—a camp for troubled teens, and within hours of arriving, it becomes painfully clear that her fellow campers aren’t just “troubled.” Here at Shadow Falls, vampires, werewolves, shapshifters, witches and fairies train side by side—learning to harness their powers, control their magic and live in the normal world.

Kylie’s never felt normal, but surely she doesn’t belong here with a bunch of paranormal freaks either. Or does she? They insist Kylie is one of them, and that she was brought here for a reason. As if life wasn’t complicated enough, enter Derek and Lucas. Derek’s a half-fae who’s determined to be her boyfriend, and Lucas is a smokin’ hot werewolf with whom Kylie shares a secret past. Both Derek and Lucas couldn’t be more different, but they both have a powerful hold on her heart.

Even though Kylie feels deeply uncertain about everything, one thing is becoming painfully clear—Shadow Falls is exactly where she belongs…

Why I picked it up:  A friend of mine told me she spent the entire weekend reading three Shadow Falls books in a row! When she told me about the series, I decided to pluck the first book off of my Nook wish list and give it a try. Needless to say, I was hooked from page one. The perfectly plotted pacing, the complex characters, the boy drama – everything about it had me completely enthralled.

Why I liked it: Considering two paranormal hotties are thrown into the mix, I expected this book to center mostly on the love triangle. But surprisingly, there’s so much more to the story! From her parents’ messy divorce, to her best friend’s pregnancy scare, to her newfound ability to speak with the dead – she’s got a lot more on her mind than who she’s going to kiss at the campfire. A good chunk of the book focuses on Kylie’s friendship with her camp roommates: Della, a moody Goth vampire, and Miranda, a bubbly, boy-crazy witch. Despite their differences, all three girls are fiercely devoted to each other – and I can’t wait to see how their bond develops in the next three books!

What irked me: The Taylor Swift lookalike on the cover doesn’t do Kylie justice. She’s strong-willed, quirky, and a tad self-conscious – nothing like the statuesque blonde beauty striking a sulky supermodel pose inside a spooky tree. To be honest, I get annoyed when publishers feature the image of a main character on the cover. I’d so much rather use my own imagination…isn’t that the reason why we read in the first place?

Why I’m on team Derek: Since Lucas and Kylie formed a connection back when they were little kids, it’s apparent they’re destined for each other. Plus with his dangerous back story and James Dean good looks, he embodies all the hallmarks of a paranormal soul mate. But just for this once, I would like the werewolf underdog (pun intended!) to get the girl.  Derek is sweet, protective and an all-around hottie. Plus it’s no mystery that he’s really into Kylie. There’s one tiny hitch: He has the ability to manipulate emotions with his fairy powers. That adds a miniscule element of danger, but there’s no mistaking that he’s the overlooked  good guy. And as the saying goes, nice guys finish last.

Overall: If there is one book teens – and adults – should have on their must-read list, Born at Midnight is it! Fans of paranormal romance and mystery will hurry to the end of each chapter in anticipation of what will happen next. Unfolding at an easy pace, Kylie’s mystical journey of self-discovery had me glued to the pages until the wee hours of the night. Can’t wait to pounce on the second book!

Texas Gothic by Rosemary Clement-Moore

In honor of Sunday – a day I reserve for reading and lollygagging – I bring you a short and sweet book review! 


From the publisher
: Amy Goodnight’s family is far from normal. She comes from a line of witches, but tries her best to stay far outside the family business. Her summer gig? Ranch-sitting for her aunt with her wacky but beautiful sister. Only the Goodnight Ranch is even less normal than it normally is. Bodies are being discovered, a ghost is on the prowl, and everywhere she turns, the hot neighbor cowboy is in her face.

Why I picked this book: Confession – I had absolutely no business buying another book because I have a stack of review copies to attend to. But how could I pass up a book titled “Texas Gothic”? I spent a good 20 agonizing minutes at BookPeople picking up the book, setting it down, picking it up again and then setting it down. My conscience was telling me to be practical and wait until after I read my stack of books…but the devil on my shoulder always wins.  Come to think of it, this is the exact process I go through in the ice cream aisle at HEB. Texas Gothic is the literary equivalent of a big calorie-laden tub of Blue Bell.

Why I loved it: OMG – where to begin? The hot cowboy next door, the foreboding “Mad Monk,” the Nancy Drew mystery, the hilariously quirky main character – everything about this book roped me in like a steer at a Texas rodeo! Plus it’s set in the Texas Hill Country, a deeply storied region steeped in ghostly legends and lore.  And if that’s not enough – the author (a fifth-generation Texan, I might add!) researched a forensic archeological dig project at my alma mater, Texas State. As a student, I was always interested in the body farm, so this was a real treat. I’ve also been very fascinated by the ghosts and legends of the Texas Hill Country, specifically the Devil’s Backbone. I consulted with Bert Wall, author of a series of books about the haunted hill country, and the Texas Ghost Hunters for a special Halloween story for my college newspaper. Read more about it here.

The romance: The chemistry between Amy and Ben McCullough, the rugged cowboy next door, really revved my engine. They have the whole love-hate thing going on – and it works! Imagine pairing up Nancy Drew with a young, hot Clint Eastwood and throwing some ghost-hunting and witchcraft in the mix. I’m not sure what was more fun, solving the mystery of the missing gold mine and the evil “Mad Monk” or watching Ben and Amy’s relationship develop.

Favorite scene: The author did a fine job using the eerie backdrop of the hill country’s lonely roads and rugged canyons to her advantage. I really got the creeps when Amy pulled over on the side of the road on a dark, moonless night to investigate a ghostly apparition. Lo and behold, she falls down a sinkhole and finds herself trapped in a dark cave caked with bat guano. The thought of being inside a dark cave with a dangerous ghost – and possibly some murderous gold-digging humans – on the loose, really gives me the heebie jeebies!

What I want more of: I’m hoping the author will write another novel about the Goodnight sisters, but with a focus on Phin, the absent-minded genius of the family. I got a big kick out of her nutty experiments and scientific theories. And unlike her self-conscious sister, she has no qualms about waving her “I’m a magical witch” flag around in public. The dynamic between the two sisters is quite hilarious.

Overall: This book is a surefire winner for fans of whodunits and the supernatural. It’s a welcome departure from high-fantasy YA thrillers filled with fairies, sprites, swoony vampires and Hogwarts rip-off academies. If you’re in the mood for a good paranormal-infused mystery with fun characters and hilarious dialogue, give this book a shot.

Short & Sweet Sundays: The Unseen Volume 1: It Begins/Rest In Peace

In honor of Sunday – a day I reserve for reading and lollygagging – I bring you a short and sweet book review! 

The Gist: (From the publisher) Out walking alone one rainy night, Lucy becomes convinced that someone – or something – is following her. Spooked, she ducks into a cemetery to try and lose her stalker. Panicking in the darkness, she slips and stumbles into an open grave – only to discover she is not alone in there. She manages to escape, but soon begins having terrifying visions and dreams – and she still can’t shake the feeling of an unseen presence, always watching, waiting… Who was the girl in the grave? And what did she do to Lucy?

What I liked: The deliciously spooky atmosphere. Filled with overgrown cemeteries, lurking shadows and sinister stalkers, this book really filled my pumpkin soul with the Halloween spirit! Next to Barbara Michaels, Richie Tankersley Cusick is my go-to author for a good old fashioned gothic ghost story.

Favorite character: The two dark and mysterious boys keep the sparks flying, but of all the characters, my favorite is Lucy’s unlikely sidekick, Dakota Montana. She’s weird, bookish and totally fascinated by all things paranormal. Hmm…come to think of it, she and I have a bit in common! A devout believer in ghostly forces, she’s the only one who can help Lucy ward off the evil forces. Plus her family owns an eclectic used book store/coffee house, so that really adds to her cool factor.

What I need more of: Answers! I need to know what the heck is stalking Lucy and tormenting her dreams at night. Is it a vampire or some sort of demonic incubus?  And what’s the backstory with the hot priest? Seems like there might be something sinister lurking under that good-boy facade. Guess I’ll have to get my hands on the next book to find out!

Gizzy gives this book two paws up!

Why I picked this one up: Richie Tankersley Cusick and I go way back…like to the mid-90s. I haven’t read one of her books since high school, so I figured it was time to revisit one of the authors who helped me escape my teenage angst. Without the Vampire Diaries (the books, not the WB series), R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through that craptastic chapter in my life. Come to think of it…that cute Luke Perry lookalike boy in fifth period English kind of helped.

This book is best pared with: A hot caramel apple cider and a Midnight Syndicate playlist.

Overall: This is the perfect curl-up-at-homer for a blustery night by the fire. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book from start to finish in one day, but the story just sucked me right in! Like chocolate, this book is addictive and it leaves me wanting more. Keep in mind this is young adult, so if you’re looking for a tight-plotted mystery, you may want to grab a Harlan Coben title instead. But if you’re in the mood for a Gothic ghost story loaded with campy atmosphere, give this author a try.

Short & Sweet Sunday: The Hollow by Jessica Verday

In honor of Sunday – a day I reserve for reading and lollygagging – I bring you a short and sweet book review! For more of my “Short & Sweet” reviews, go here.  

The gist:  (From Goodreads) After the death of her best friend, Abbey feels abandoned and alone. She tries distracting herself by creating perfumes, but true distraction comes in the form of Caspian, the “total hottie” she meets in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery. Abbey quickly falls head over heels in love with Caspian, although she struggles with his mysterious and elusive demeanor. Just as things seem like they are back to normal, Abbey makes two discoveries: she finds Kristen’s secret diary that reveals she was hiding something from Abbey, and she learns Caspian’s true identity. On the verge of a breakdown, Abbey’s world slowly begins to unravel when she realizes Sleepy Hollow may hold more truth than legend.

Why I read it: I’m a HUGE fan of Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, so any book or movie that touches on this Halloweenie masterpiece really sparks my interest. How could I resist a gothic mystery involving a creepy cemetery, an alluring ghost boy and the headless horseman?!? It’s like this book was tailor made just for me!

The perks: Despite its many flaws, this is a fun little Halloween read. The new spin on the legend of the headless horseman is entertaining…although Washington Irving is most likely rolling around in his grave. I liked the spooky atmospheric graveyard, where Abbey would spend her days reminiscing about the good times she had with her best friend. Apparently the two weirdos liked to hang out at Washignton Irving’s grave, where they would tell ghost stories about the Headless Horseman and giggle about boys.

The drawbacks: The love connection between Abbey and Caspian seemed forced. I can’t put my finger on it, but I just didn’t feel the heat radiating off of these two star-crossed lovers. They’re just so nice and sweet and polite …yawn. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but it felt like the author wasn’t really feeling it, but she had to fuse them together to appease her swoony teenage readers. While I’m at it, I should also add that the editor should have been more heavy-handed with the red pen. The story would have moved along at a much quicker pace if it wasn’t bogged down with superfluous details about Abbey’s day-to-day motions like mixing scents, organizing her uncle’s office or working on a science fair project. As for the mystery, Abbey’s obsession with Caspian eclipses her interest in her friend’s disappearance. If you’re looking for clues and red-herrings you won’t find them in this book.

This book is best pared with: A steaming mug of apple cider and a glowing jack-o-lantern. I know it’s crazy to be thinking of Halloween in April, but what can I say?  I’ll say it loud, I’m a Halloween freak and I’m proud!

Soundtrack pick: Paramore–Haunted

Overall: To quote Randy Jackson: It was just OK for me, dog. I’m not itching to jump right into the next book, but I’ll probably get around to it. The author really didn’t crack open the case of the missing best friend until the very last chapter, so I’m hoping she’ll get down to business in the next book. Plus I want to figure out what the heck is going on with Caspian’s inexplicable link to the Headless Horseman!

A Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez, Author of “The Knife and the Butterfly”

Inspired by her teaching experience at Chávez High School in Houston,  Ashley Hope Pérez writes about disadvantaged teens struggling to meet their obligations at home and follow their dreams. However her newest book  The Knife and the Butterfly is about the students she didn’t get to teach, the ones who slipped through the cracks in the system or dropped out of school.

The protagonist, Salvadoran Martín “Azael” Arevalo is one of those fallen students. The story unfolds when Azael wakes up in a locked cell after a gang fight in a Houston park. Unable to piece together the events that landed him behind bars, yet again, he realizes that something is not right.

Things get really weird when he’s assigned to secretly observe another imprisoned teen named Alexis “Lexi” Allen. Despite their personality clash, the two troubled teens soon find themselves inexplicably linked in this gritty paranormal thrill ride.

This up-and-coming young adult author was kind enough to chat with Chick Lit Cafe about how she learned the inner workings of street gangs, the connection between teens and the paranormal, and how she surprised herself with a twist ending.

How did you come up with the title “The Knife and the Butterfly”?

Massive confession: the series of articles that initially inspired the novel—run by The Houston Chronicle back in 2006—was titled “The Butterfly and the Knife.” Luckily for me, there’s no copyright on titles! I switched the order of the knife and the butterfly in the title after an astute reader pointed out that male readers would be more likely to pick up a book with a title that begins with “knife” rather than “butterfly.”

The duality expressed in the title was a focusing one for me as I wrote. As I say in my author’s note for the novel, I wanted to show Azael and Lexi’s world as much more than a patchwork of crime and violence. In addition to the very real threat of their circumstances and the danger of poor choices, I tried to capture these two teens’ vulnerability and their potential for redemption.

What made you decide to dabble in the realm of paranormal fiction?

It wasn’t as simple as a decision, exactly. Yes, there is a “paranormal twist” to The Knife and the Butterfly, but much of the novel (say 90 percent) is occupied with the gritty world Lexi and Azael live in on the fringe of mainstream society in Houston. The paranormal was a bit of a surprise to me, too.

That is to say, I didn’t set out to incorporate paranormal elements in my novel; they became necessary for me to change the rules of my characters’ world just enough so that they could make different decisions… so they could have the second chances that are built into the system for many middle-class teens.

You mentioned that you even surprised yourself with the twist at the end. How did this come about?

The ending developed unexpectedly out of exploratory writing I was doing about Azael’s street art. This whole thread—Azael and his relationship to spray paint and the walls of his city—was a challenge for me. I am very much a rule follower, so it took me a lot of effort to rethink graffiti as “street art” and to come to understand what it meant to Azael to write right on the faces of the structures around him.

Anyway, I was writing about Azael’s thoughts as he was drawing, and then all of sudden I was writing the ending. And once it was there on the page—and I knew it was the ending—it was the only possibility that felt right to me. It went through plenty of revision and development, but the thrust of the final part of the book didn’t change. I embraced it with its paranormal baggage.

Why do you think young readers are so enthralled by the paranormal?  

You’d think I’d have an ironclad thesis after teaching a course on vampire literature for two semesters, but to be honest, I’m not sure. Within YA, I tend to shelve myself alongside contemporary realists, not fantasy writers. Still, if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say the paranormal provides novel ways of thinking through and dramatizing teen (and human) issues. In fact, one of my favorite student papers interpreted one vampire in literature as an eternal adolescent.

 How did you familiarize yourself with inner-city gangs? 

Because Crazy Crew is a “home-grown” Houston gang, details related to it came mostly from news coverage and other local sources. MS-13 (La Mara Salvatrucha), on the other hand, is an international gang that has been described by some as “the world’s most dangerous gang.” I did extensive reading about MS-13, including many first-person accounts, but I focused on the particulars of the gang’s activity in Houston, which are generally not quite as extreme as what you might see in the heart of Central America.

For both gangs, I needed to learn specifics: their hand signs, the “rules” of initiation and involvement, linguistic patterns and so on. I would never want to trivialize or glamorize gang involvement, but at the same time I think some media portrayals are a bit exaggerated and fail to capture the nuances of actual teens’ experiences. For example, readers will notice that—contrary to most Hollywood portrayals of gang violence—there’s not a single gun involved in the fight that opens The Knife and the Butterfly. This is pretty consistent with the two gangs portrayed. I’ve found that when I ground my writing in particulars, a lot of stereotypes fall away.

The story is primarily narrated from the point of view of Azael. How were you able to capture the language of a poor teenage gang member in Houston?

You found a very nice way to ask something that some teen readers, upon meeting me, put a lot more bluntly: “How did YOU write THIS?” They pick up immediately on the fact that I am not someone who, in conversation, would describe a package of Cheetos as “spicy-as-fuck” (Azael’s words). How, then, can such words come out of my pen?

A lot of it was shameless cribbing from what I heard kids in Houston say, both in the hallways of the high school where I used to teach and in the taquerías and hangouts of working-class neighborhoods. I spent a good amount of time in the areas where the novel is set (mainly the Montrose area and a run-down stretch of Bellfort). I also paid attention to the language used in the interviews I read and would sometimes mimic patterns of phrasing.

Now, in terms of emotional truth in Azael’s language, I chalk that up to a willingness to imagine experiences and ways of seeing that are unlike my own. I recently heard Lionel Shriver talk here in Paris, and she said that for her, writing from a male point of view is not the big leap; the big leap is getting inside another head, period, and discovering those individual particularities, the quirks of mind inside the many big things we have in common. I agree, and I think you could substitute “poor” and “gang member” for “male” and still find the notion to be true.

What message do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

I’d love readers to leave the pages of The Knife and the Butterfly with a sense that second chances aren’t doled out equally. And I hope that they will feel a bit more urgency about being a positive presence for those who, as far as they had thought before, don’t even deserve to be redeemed.

 What are you working on now?

I’m knee-deep in a very messy first draft of a historical novel set in 1930s East Texas, near where I grew up. There’s an explosion, an interracial romance, a pair of twins, and a significant shoe. That’s all I can say without transgressing certain foolish writerly superstitions.

Want to know more about this talented new author? Check out her debut novel What Can’t Wait. Read the Q&A here.