The Keeper of Portals Review (In A LIST! How EXCITING!)

I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

So ... V.S. Nelson's The Keeper of Portals releases tomorrow.

Yeah. Up until a few months ago, I didn't know what it was either - but I now know, ladies and gentlemen. It is a fantasy-adventure story about a pair of teenagers who discover not only that the world and everything within it is controlled by Keepers - from the Keeper of Buttons to the Keeper of Causality - but also that these Keepers are being kidnapped.

Which could result in, you know, the entire world crumbling in on itself.
It turned out that I rather enjoyed this, but I'm guessing you might want to know about my opinion in more detail, being the demanding little things that you are, so I made you a list review. Please enjoy it.

Things I enjoyed and would like to cheer about:
  • Isabel. ISABEL. I have so much love for her and her particular brand of 16th century sassiness - she's so brave and smart and incredible.
  • Also loads of girl power on Isabel's part. Huzzah.
  • It took me a while to warm to Martin, but once I did, I saw the truth. He is a cheeky, protective little cinnamon roll and I love him for it.
  • The whole book was just delightfully, unashamedly weird, as all good portal fantasy should be, and - although it took me a while to adjust - I ended up loving that uniqueness.
  • I JUST SHIP MARTIN + ISABEL SO HARD. Misabel? Isartin? I don't have a ship name, but at this point I don't particularly care. (As for whether or not I have canon, well. You'll have to find out.)
  • That ENDING. It HURT. In a frankly amazing way, of course.

Things I did not like so much, thank you:
  • It seemed to take forever to get going. The first two or three chapters seemed to be solely made up of Martin's internal monologue, and WOW it dragged. 
  • Obviously I don't want to say too much, but there were some magical powers involved. I've nothing against magic in general, and mostly it was fine? It just got overly convenient at times ... as you can imagine, I rolled my eyes a little.
  • Martin and Isabel were supposed to be about fifteen. They did not read like fifteen year olds. I don't know exactly why? Maybe it's because the plot and it's lovely wackiness feeling more middle grade? But at times I got confused and had to remind myself of their age.

In summary - don't go into this book expecting a full-blown YA fantasy, because that's not what it is. You'll be disappointed. But if you enjoy MG-style, wacky fantasy with historical elements, squeeworthy (and squeaky clean) will-they-won't-they romance, and kickass, loyal characters, you're in the right place.

If you would like a synopsis, here is one of those. Never say I'm not generous.
Everything in the universe is maintained by its own keeper, from the most insignificant insect to time itself. When 15 year-old Martin moves into a stately home that’s dangerously overhanging a cliff, he meets the Keeper of Portals and learns of the mysterious door at the end of his bedroom.
    One morning, Martin wakes to discover the Keeper of Portals is missing and the door at the end of his bedroom is open. Martin steps through the door to find himself in the 17th century where he meets Isabel, the house’s maid. Upon discovering two imprisoned keepers, Martin and Isabel gain the ability to control time and travel through portals. 
    After being attacked by hordes of brainwashed villagers, Martin and Isabel learn that the master of the house has a devious plan, one the keepers are powerless to stop. Martin and Isabel must jump between the present day and the 17th century in order to hide from the twisted master, avoiding past versions of themselves, as powerful keepers thwart them at every turn. But as items from the future begin to bleed into the past and the present day is plagued by malfunctioning portals, Martin and Isabel’s only option is to confront the master – the Keeper of Questions.
(via Goodreads)

In the comments: Do you like a list-based review, or do you prefer more traditional ones? Does this book sound like your sort of thing? Why or why not?
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5 Ways I Plan to Improve My Blog In 2017

First of all, I would just like to thank everyone for your amazing support with Disability Diaries last week. It meant the world to me to write those posts and have those discussions, and the fact that people were out there retweeting and contributing and actually listening to what we all had to say ... it blew my mind. I think I speak on behalf of Ely, Cee Arr, Angel, Jolien and Dina when I say that you guys were (and still are, of course) utterly amazing.

It was also, as you can probably imagine, a ridiculously busy week. Between homework and music practice and finding the time to chat with you guys on the internet, I don't think I've had a moment to sit and think about my blogging direction since the New Year.

So that's what I'm going to do today. Here you go:

#1 ~ STREAMLINE MY TAGS
Hey - tags?

You've probably never bothered to scroll down far enough on any of my post to get to the tag wasteland, but do it. Do it now.

The amount of tags there that are absolutely useless because they only contain one post ... it hurts me. It's just a painful mass of links that tangle up everyone's brains - especially mine. I've been putting off pruning the whole jungle because the thought of going through every single post I've ever written to fix its tags makes me want to turn my brain inside out just a tiny bit.

But it really is bugging me.

#2 ~ ACTUALLY PUT REVIEWS ON GOODREADS
Yes, Tom Hanks. Really.

I'm doing my first category-based Reading Challenge this year (courtesy of Sorry, I'm Booked) and it has a rule that you have to review the three books you read per month for the challenge. And, therefore, I plan to review not only those, but EVERY SINGLE BOOK I read this year.

Good luck, me.

As I've found that a) I like to write itty bitty tiny reviews which don't always fill up an entire blog post, b) reviews don't actually get enjoyed as much as my other blog posts (based on the stats, anyway), and c) I'm sick of having a Goodreads account that resembles a town abandoned after nuclear disaster, I decided I'd post those reviews there.

I'm not going to completely abandon on-the-blog reviews - in fact, I've got some lovely ones lined up for you in the next couple of weeks - but they will become a rare species. You know, like pandas. Or ... unicorns.

#3 ~ GET BACK INTO TWITTER CHATS
When I took part in the Teen Bloggers' Chat yesterday, my main intention was to make sure that the blogging community at large knew that I was still alive and hadn't just zombified myself for Disability Diaries before returning to my silent grave.

Hush. I'm tired. It's not that long for a metaphor.

Anyway, yakking on Twitter is a very fun (and also very productive/ networky) thing to do, so I need to get around to doing it more. Come join me, if you fancy! 7PM UK Time? Next Sunday? It's on teen voice and opinion and all that kinds of awesome.

You'll be there. *nods with completely hollow confidence*

#4 ~ SCHEDULE MORE POSTS
I don't just say this to myself every year, I say this to myself every week. And I always believe it. Come Saturday, I'm always excited about two whole free days and I think 'hey! I can get two or three posts written and scheduled, no problem!"

Then Monday rolls around, and - well. There's a reason this post is going up exactly ten seconds before my bedtime.

It's as if I'm physically incapable of writing anything unless I am facing a near-impossible deadline, and this is not fun. It might just be the way I work, but if so ... it is not my favourite attribute. Right now, I'm so tired I am typing the wrong words and barely noticing.

This needs to stop.

#5 ~ ACTUALLY COMMENT ON PEOPLE'S BLOGS FOR ONCE
Gosh, am I terrible at commenting.

I'll read maybe two or three blog posts a day, and a lot of them are amazing. I'll get to the end of the post, think something along the lines of "wow, that was good" ... and then CLOSE THE WINDOW WITHOUT COMMENTING.

And I know how terrible this is. I know how much I appreciate comments on my own blog and the people who genuinely care enough to leave them, especially regularly (you guys are beautiful and I love you. Thank you for all your support and gorgeousness), so it's really bad that I love posts and then the blogging geniuses behind them don't get to hear about it.

I guess I just need to get into the habit? But WOW. Someone hit me with a hammer until I hit reply next time, okay?

***
In the comments: Do you have any blogging goals for yourself this year? Why are they important for you? Do you think you'll actually end up meeting them?
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My Disability Diaries TBR

Have you been enjoying Disability Diaries?
There's been some downright awesome stuff going on, from discussions to rants to whatever it is I wrote last Saturday, but the recommendations are my absolute favourite right now. Literally just scrolling through the #DisabilityDiaries2017 hashtag has almost doubled the size of my TBR.

And, because I'm at least a little bit evil - uh, I mean ... because it's super important for everyone to read as many different representations of different disabilities as possible, I've made this post.

Because you want to grow your TBR at a ridiculous rate too, right?

RIGHT?

Highly Illogical Behaviour by John Corey Whatley

I'd heard of this one a couple of times before DD week, and frankly I was more than a little skeptical about it. The premise involves an MC trying to "cure" another MC of his agoraphobia - which sounds like a recipe for harmful representation to me.

But, according to Gerri @ Coralling Books, it's actually a surprisingly good interpretation, and I'm just fascinated to see how the author manages to turn what looks like a toxic stereotype into ... well, not a toxic stereotype. Also, I know very little about agoraphobia, and this needs to change. Between this book and the next one, I'm hoping I might get at least a basic view of it from a couple of different angles.

(Nice segway there, Lara. Real subtle.)

Under Rose Tainted Skies by Louise Gornell

I've seen all kinds of rave reviews about this book over the last week, but I think the honour of convincing me to read it goes to Casey @ AdoptABookAus - apparently it involves a girl with agoraphobia and OCD who meets a guy? But his mere presence doesn't miraculously cure her?

Yes please and thank you. Count me in.

The really eye-opening mental health-related books I've read have been heartbreaking most of the time *cough* All The Bright Places *cough*, but that's because they told the truth, rather than wrapping up these issues in a blanket of "you'll-fall-in-love-and-it'll-all-be-okay". Whether or not I end up sobbing, it sounds like I'll have heard the truth from this book.

And that is kind of the point of Disability Diaries - to promote books that are honest about mental illness and disability and everything in between?

The Season of You and Me by Robin Constantine

This one comes from my lovely fellow co-host Angel (the linked post is her DD TBR, so have a look if you're looking for even more recs), and GAH I AM SO EXCITED TO READ IT. After the hella controversial Me Before You, which I read and became pretty upset by last week, I'm desperate for a book with a paraplegic character that a) doesn't perpetrate harmful stereotypes about disability being a worse fate than death, b) doesn't make me bawl my eyes out, and c) doesn't use my concern about representation and emotional investment against each other to make me feel ridiculously conflicted.

According to Goodreads, it's a fun summery read. I'm hoping it wasn't lying - although we all know I cry at everything, so I'm not about to put away the tissues.

Just. In. Case.

The Memory Wall by Lev A.C. Rosen

Another of my co-hosts, Jolien (who, I'd just like to point out, is just as lovely) wrote an absolutely gorgeous piece on dementia last Monday. I've been pretty busy this week with everything that's been going on, so I only just got round to reading it, and wow did it make me think.

This is one of the books Jolien mentioned, and other than the fact that I now have a minor obsession with learning AS MUCH AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE about dementia through literature, the premise really caught my attention. It's about a young boy who escapes his mother's slow loss of memory by playing a fantasy video game ... except he's convinced that she's playing with him from her nursing home. And refuses to believe that she's got dementia in the first place.

It sounds amazing (although I'm guessing I'll need the tissues for this one too) and also cover love. I can't wait to get around to it.

***
In the comments: Has Disability Diaries added any books to your TBR? Which ones? What's exciting you about it?
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Disability Rep Done Good | The First Third by Will Kostakis

This is disability representation done right, people.

The entire time I read it, I was kind of delirious at the fact that somebody had finally represented ME. In an actual book. My disability was being described and, while I'm not 100% like that character, I could identify with them far more strongly than I'd ever identified with any character before. I was so overjoyed it was getting to the point that I laughed - and then cried - most of my way through the book.

There were probably a dozen or more tiny things that made it awesome, and despite having read it almost cover to cover twice, I probably won't be able to recognise and describe all of them. I guess I'll just do some?

Right. So. The disability representation in The First Third comes in the form of Lucas - A.K.A. Sticks - an eighteen-year-old joker and wingman to the long-suffering Greek-Australian protagonist, Bill. He's a hilarious person, he genuinely cares about Bill, and he has Cerebral Palsy, so walks with crutches. When a sidekick character like Lucas is disabled, it's easy for their inclusion to just feel like tokenism, like a joke. It's easy for them to be an afterthought - and that afterthought hurts.

(Sorry. When I get excited, it appears that I use a lot of italics.)

REASONS WHY LUCAS DID NOT FEEL LIKE AN AFTERTHOUGHT (OR, THE PARTS OF THIS BOOK THAT I LIKED THE MOST)
  • His disability didn't define him, but neither was it ignored. Constant little references were slipped into the text enough to make it feel like CP was an integral part of Lucas' (and through extension, Bill's) life, but none of them felt like the author was yelling "HE'S GOT A DISABILITY, REMEMBER?". That takes a lot of subtlety and no doubt some very good editing, but it's so so so necessary if you want to write disabled characters truthfully. Please take note, and remember that the MC was in a particularly stressful situation he wanted to get away from, not just being heartless:
          "Faster," I barked. He rested on his crutches for a second. "Difficult."
  • There's this huge, utterly lovely discussion about dating with a disability (and as a gay person, for that matter), and it was somehow absolutely vital, insightful, and funny all at the same time. I don't want to say too much - because spoilers, amiright? - but it made my heart happy.
          "Says the able-bodied hetero kid." Sticks said. "If you think you have to jump through hoops to find someone - then my hoops are spinning. And they're on fire."
  •  It was really refreshing to see a physically disabled character who wasn't in a wheelchair? There's nothing wrong with wheelchairs - an awful lot of disabled people (including me) use them, and they deserve to be represented too, but there's this frankly useless stereotype in the world that disability always equals wheelchair. And this subverted it! A tiny bit! HUZZAH!
          (I think a lot of this also has to do with the fact that Lucas is based on an actual person, rather             than just being a cookie-cutter of a disabled person, but I'll leave Will to explain that in his                   interview in a bit.)
  • HARDCORE (CANON) SHIP INVOLVING A DISABLED PERSON.
  • The process of growing up with a disability is described at the beginning, and the little details just made that description. The way mini-Lucas explains CP to fellow four-year-olds by saying his "legs won't listen" (I tell small children a similar thing when they get inquisitive). The whole "rebrand" he goes through in early teenage years, initiating the nickname Sticks and shortening the phrase Cerebral Palsy to CP (I didn't have the self-confidence to choose an ironic nickname, but I definitely gave up the long name.) This, ladies and gentlemen, is an able-bodied author who has DONE THEIR FREAKING RESEARCH.
  • I was also oddly comforted by how okay Bill was with the little things of being a special needs friend. 
          Shush. It's a term now. I invented it.

          It might surprise you how much time I spend worrying about how much my friends do for me,             even though they always look at me like I'm crazy when I bring it up (thanks for being                         amazing, you lovely people). But ... seeing how matter-of-fact Bill is most of the time about                 walking a bit slower, or handing Lucas his sticks - and knowing, as you'll see in the interview,             that the author speaks from a position of knowledge on this - just set my mind at ease like                   nothing really has before.

In summary, this book is a testament to disability representation at its finest: and it shows that, while #ownvoices are ridiculously important and we just don't have enough of them in disability lit, able-bodied authors can write really decent portrayals. Beautiful portrayals, in fact.

Not all of them do, but that's a topic for another day. Wednesday's post, in fact.
Now, I'm guessing you guys want to peer into the brain which put this together, right? Well, today's your lucky day, because I have an interview lined up for you. Thank you for agreeing to do this, Will - I'm certainly fascinated by what you have to say!


What made you want to write about a disabled character like Lucas?
In my first year of university, I met someone. We were both seated and we spoke for what felt like hours. The conversation was lively, and my sides hurt from laughing so hard. We clicked. This was back when Facebook first launched and I was genuinely excited to make a new Facebook friend. He went to leave, and walked away with his crutches. As he did, I realised he had cerebral palsy. 

My first thought was, 'Oh, lucky I'm not friends with him, that'd be really inconvenient.'

And then I heard that first thought. I was deeply ashamed. That was my first thought meeting someone with cerebral palsy? I immediately acted to correct it, we became Facebook friends, and now, he's one of my closest friends. And every time we hang out, I'm reminded that had I listened to that prejudiced first thought, I would have missed out on one of the best relationships in my life.

The reason for writing Lucas was two-fold. First, I wanted to capture that relationship, and second, I wanted to make sure that nobody who read The First Third ever had that same first thought.

What was the hardest part of that process?
The hardest part was capturing the reality of being a gay teen with cerebral palsy, without making him read like Oscarbait. His arc has tragic beats, most in the novel do, but I didn't want it to overwhelm. On the flip-side, I didn't want to reduce him to comic relief.

It was a delicate knife edge to tread, and I overcame it by thinking about him less like he was the protagonist's sidekick, and more like his friendship with Bill was the central character. They are two halves of one whole.

What did you do to make sure that you represented CP in an accurate way?
I started by making sure Lucas was a clear character, with a distinct voice. I didn't want his disability to be a plot point, but I wanted it to inform who he was. Much like I didn't want him to "just happen to be gay", I didn't want him to "just happen to have CP". There are two parts to representation - incorporation and exploration. While I think incorporation is admirable, it's that second part that writers should strive towards. It's the exploration of identity, it's the details that make it feel real and less tokenistic. That means research, beyond my own personal experience with my friend, asking questions and listening.

How did your publisher react to Lucas' involvement in The First Third?
Lucas was the best-realised character in the early drafts. From the first pages they read, Penguin Random House Australia embraced him. While his disability was never an issue, his arc was a point of contention. The First Third is about teens taking their first awkward steps into adulthood, and for Lucas, that's acting on his sexual desires.

First, I was asked if the scene was essential. Did it have to be through an app? (Keep in mind this is before Tinder sort of normalised dating apps for straight people.) Did it have to be with a stranger? Yes, Lucas is coming to terms with what it means to be gay and disabled. He has been taught by previous interactions, and an ablest culture, that he cannot be desirable and disabled, so inviting someone over via an app allows him to disguise his disability.

The first time they read the scene, my publisher was its champion. But still, there was trepidation. I understood why. As a touring author without an international name, the local education market is important to me. ‘Difficult’ content begets difficulties, like not being shelved in school libraries and not being invited to speak. They were hypothetical difficulties at that stage, sure, but compromises were still made to reduce the risk of them becoming my reality.

I say compromises — Lucas was aged up to 18, and the scene occurred in his bedroom instead of a hotel room — but these changes didn’t compromise my vision. The scene had changed slightly, but its meaning remained intact, and it was now likely to get into more schools, where more gay kids, more disabled kids and more kids with friends and classmates like Lucas, could read it. 

To make doubly sure we would not encounter roadblocks, we did our research. We sought out similar scenes written about heterosexual teens, often younger, in books that had made school reading lists, and used them as guides. The thinking was, and still is, what makes sexual content appropriate has absolutely nothing to do with the genders of the parties involved. Still, I was overly cautious. If I could gently imply, I gently implied.

By the time the novel was published, and Lucas was embraced, the trepidation was forgotten.

Were you worried about how Lucas would be received by readers?
Reading is a subjective exercise. As readers, we bring our contexts and histories to everything we read. As a writer, I always worry about how everything - from the characters to the punctuation choice on page 65 - will be received by readers. I do what I can on my end to minimise errors and missteps. I won't publish a book I don't 100% believe in.

But I am also aware that believing in a book is subjective too.

If I wrote a harmful representation, I would want it to be received poorly. Identifying issues allows them to be corrected. Nowadays, publishing processes are so much more flexible, and by extension, the contents of stories are more fluid, than they have ever been. What was once literally set in stone can be changed, bettered based on feedback and consultation.

At the end of the day, my worries as an author are not the issue. The impact of being called out for poor representation on me as a writer is nothing compared to the impact of that poor representation on an affected reader.

If a story alarms you, don't be afraid to reach out to a writer. And the inverse is true too. If a story speaks to you, let an author know. It means a lot to know you got it right.

Do you have any tips for writers who want to represent disabled characters, but aren't confident in doing so?
Build confidence the same way you build confidence in all other avenues of life: work on it. Show people, listen to feedback. Listen, listen, listen. Write some more.
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Why Do We Need Disability Diaries?

Today is the day people. DISABILITY DIARIES IS GO.
If you've somehow managed to miss my endless fangirling about its existence in the last few months, then a) you're incredibly talented at avoiding the internet, and b) you're going to need to know a bit about it, aren't you?

Basically, you're in store for a week-long extravaganza of reviews, interviews, discussions, TBRs ... pretty much any kind of post you can imagine, all related to promoting decent representations of disability in literature, especially YA.

If you want to make sure you don't miss a single post - which you don't, right? - make sure you follow me and my fellow mods, Angel, Cee Arr, Dina, Ely and Jolien on Twitter, and keep an eye on the #DisabilityDiaries2017 hashtag: we've got a load of other people contributing, so it's the best way to keep on top of everything.

But ... why do we need an event like this? Why do we need Disability Diaries?

I've attempted to explain why disability representation is so important generally in a guest post at Chasing Faerytales, and also expressed my anger at harmful representation in this little rant here. But today I'm going to answer that question in a new way.

I need to tell you the story of The Woman.
Not Irene Adler. This particular woman was probably a pretty normal person: about my Mum's age, chatty, pretty nice on the face of it. I'd never met her before; I was at a party where one of my Dad's friends lived, and I didn't really know anyone. But she proceeded to be someone I'll never forget.

And not in a good way.

This is the conversation we had. I've removed the boring bits, like me saying "Hi, I'm Lara", but the first words written were basically the first words out of her mouth:

Her: So, do you go to school?

Me: Uh ... yeah. I go to [local Secondary], which is a mainstream school.

Thankfully, I resisted the urge to add "and I'm in the top set, you pig". Would have been entertaining to see her face, though.

Her: Can you tell me a bit about ... why you're in the chair?

I wasn't exactly keen to tell a perfect stranger what's actually private medical information, but I figured my commitment to making sure people are educated about disability still stood, so I told her. Through only ever-so-slightly gritted teeth, I explained that cerebral palsy was a condition that affected my nervous system, that it caused lower-body spasms, and ... well, some other stuff too. I don't remember all of it.

Her: Do you take any medication? Like, to help with the spasms and things?

Me: No, there isn't any, really. I've taken pain meds after operations, but mostly it's just a physio programme, and -

Her: Oh, you should!

Me: What?

Her: I think medication would really help you.

Me: Oh, well I'm constantly in contact with my doctors, and they - we - never really thought that medication would be useful.

Her: Oh, no, no, no! I'm a nurse, and there are a lot of supplements ...

And then she was off. Listing medications and herbal things and - by the end, the only way I could get her to stop was by thanking her and saying I'd bear them in mind. So she got to wander off and think she'd done her daily good deed for a poor disabled girl, and I was left with the feeling that my feelings, opinions and knowledge had been completely ignored.

It hurt.
I came to two conclusions while I sat there, a little bit shell-shocked. 1) The Woman was almost definitely really drunk, and 2) she hadn't actually meant to be offensive.

At no point had she tried to be rude to me, or bully me, or hurl slurs at me, or anything like that. She just fell victim to her own near-complete lack of knowledge about disabled people and how to interact with us - and honestly that's quite sad. As far as I can tell, she was trying her best to be nice.

But solely because the world doesn't contain enough education on disability, she ended up alienating me, treating me like I was stupid, and completely denying me any right to make my own choices. Just because no-one had ever told her how to avoid that.

And that's why we need Disability Diaries.
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