June Mini-Reviews

June turned out to be a busy month for me. July is shaping up to be busy too. I’m having trouble reading books and writing my novel while taking care of so many other things, but I managed to read two books this month anyhow.

The following reviews will cover what worked well in the books. If you wish to discuss what didn’t work in the books or what you enjoyed about the books, then I’d encourage you to comment on this post.

Without further ado, here are the mini-reviews for this month. (Mild spoilers may follow.) 


Best Christian Short StoriesMy professors in my undergraduate and graduate courses taught solely secular fiction. What was lacking for me—in a major way—was fiction that aligned with my faith tradition. I couldn’t find any character that accurately represented my faith in secular fiction. In the present, I’m seeking out Christian fiction like water in a desert. As a reader, I’m looking for characters like me—for accurate representation. As a writer, I’m seeking the elements that mix to create a good Christian short story.

Bret Lott takes some liberties with The Best Christian Short Stories collection. He added in some secular fiction that seemed to exemplify Christian values and ideas. Still, the anthology intrigued me. Here was something I was missing. Here was something I desperately needed to read for the sake of my own identity. “Best” stories or not, it was important to me. While I enjoyed the anthology, I’m still struggling to find that accurate representation, even within the pages of this book. Still, it was worth reading.

Synopsis from the Thomas Nelson website:

The first volume in a collection of contemporary fiction that combines the artistry of critically accaimed writers with a clear Christian worldview.

From Homer Hickam, the best-selling author of Rocket Boys–which later became the movie October Sky to editor and contributing best-selling author Bret Lott, this collection spans a talented community writing an eclectic blend of fiction. Each piece stands alone as stellar fiction. And each piece confronts us with who we are and forces us to look deeply at the human condition. From the dirt lanes of North Africa to the suburbs of California, exuding lightheartedness and profundity, hilarity and tragedy, these stories will take you on a fresh and entertaining journey.

What worked well:

  • With all stories labeled “Christian fiction,” I’m skeptical about what elements of the story align with my faith. Even though some of these stories were meant to be secular, I would agree with Lott that many of them do align with Christian values and ideas. I think there are exceptions within this anthology. For example, there is a story where a character is being racist. Now, why the author chose to make this character a racist is unclear to me. It adds nothing to the story. Sure, the character is deeply flawed, but there are no reprocussions for the character due to his racist actions and thoughts. So that particular character does not align with the Biblical, Christ-like attitude toward humanity, of which Christians are supposed to adhere to. It soured the story for me. However, what is good and what did work were many of the other stories and their characters. There were many Christian and non-Christian characters that did exhibit Christ-like attitudes, values, thoughts, and actions and their flaws made sense within the context of the story. This is what really made this anthology work for me.
  • Another thing that worked well was the multifariousness within this anthology. The stories were told from various perspectives of Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) and also from a few secular perspectives. It was a nice mix of different points of view, of different styles, and of different ways to understand Christianity and what it can mean to the people who practice it.

Who should read The Best Christian Short Stories:

  • Fans of Christian fiction
  • Fans of literary fiction
  • Those who love reading short stories
  • Readers who’ve enjoyed Bret Lott’s work as a writer and editor 

NeversI’m always seeking out flash fiction collections to read. My local librarian, also a flash fiction writer, suggested Nevers by Megan Martin. She was even kind enough to let me borrow her copy of the book. My libraian friend has a fetish for whimsy and snark and Nevers definitely exemplifies such things. I find a great deal of snarky writing to be trite and this book was no exception. Still, I’m glad I tried it and there were things about Martin’s work that I definitely enjoyed.

In lieu of a synopsis, here are some quotes of praise about Nevers from Caketrain’s website:

‘Megan Martin’s Nevers is my favorite kind of book. Its stories are familiar and distant, one never existing without the other. It’s that feeling you get when you are suddenly inside yourself, looking around, going, Hey, that’s my coffee mug. That’s my pen. I am me. It’s like standing in your childhood home as the walls are replaced with snapshots of the same walls. This is a book, only it has a mouth.’ —Lindsay Hunter, author of Don’t Kiss Me

‘In Megan Martin’s fantastic Nevers, we encounter the situation of a book that is conscious of itself. This seems right, because the life in its pages is conscious of itself, too—all at once, from a dozen slip-sliding angles, the whole a shimmering phantasm held aloft by an act of voice so clean and real it can squash your heart. Here’s me as I was reading: big stupid openmouthed grin and the thought, You’re reading this awesomeness right now, before others get to.’ —Scott Garson, author of Is That You, John Wayne?

What worked well:

  • Martin’s fictional narrator tends to have beef with poets. There are quite a few funny sections in these fictions where the narrator pokes fun of the poet characters in her life. Sometimes the poke is a fairly gentle jab: “An old professor and his new mistress sit in a circle of even older white guy poets talking about how amazing it is that because of the internet there are no ideas anymore, and what a relief it is that they’ll never have to come up with an idea again” (69). Other times the poke is more like a stab: “But what would make anyone want to see a poet’s body? Or the sort of swimsuit a poet would wear?” (89). The humor is off-color and no-holds-barred but usually works in the way a comedian delivers self-depricating punchlines.
  • If you’re teaching a class on outrageous hyperbole, this is your book. The flash story “Cinders” takes the cake (pun intended) for me,  but “Forever Bloodcloud” and “Warning Label” are also good examples. Most of the hyperbole is so outrageous that you can’t help but laugh.

Who should read Nevers:

  • Fans of snarky and off-color humor
  • Readers who enjoy irreverant narrators
  • Those who appreciate an abundance of hyperbole
  • Readers of flash fiction 

BONUS TITLES!

I read micro-chapbooks #5 through #21 in the Ghost City Press Summer Micro-Chapbook Series. You can find all of the available ones here. There will be more as the summer continues, including my own micro-chapbook, Space, Collisions (available July 19)!

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February Mini-Reviews

With eight books now read, I am closer to my goal of reading 52 books this year. For the short month of February, I decided to check out the collected novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin and revisit some of the books I read in college.

The following reviews will cover what worked well in the books. If you wish to discuss what didn’t work in the books—or better yet, your own reading goals for the year—I’d encourage you to comment on this post.

Without further ado, here are the mini-reviews for this month. (Mild spoilers may follow.)


the found and the lost

The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin

With Ursula K. Le Guin‘s passing, I felt the need to read her collected novellas as an act of mourning. She was such a talented writer and the breadth of her work could not be contained by any one genre.

Summary from the Simon & Schuster website:

Ursula K. Le Guin has won multiple prizes and accolades from the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to the Newbery Honor, the Nebula, Hugo, World Fantasy, and PEN/Malamud Awards. She has had her work collected over the years, but never as a complete retrospective of her longer works as represented in the wonderful The Found and the Lost.

Includes:
-Vaster Than Empires and More Slow
-Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight
-Hernes
-The Matter of Seggri
-Another Story or a Fisherman of the Inland Sea
-Forgiveness Day
-A Man of the People
-A Woman’s Liberation
-Old Music and the Slave Women
-The Finder
-On the High Marsh
-Dragonfly
-Paradises Lost

This collection is a literary treasure chest that belongs in every home library. 

Of Lovely Minds and Bodies: Jennifer Niven’s Holding Up the Universe

Let me explain a bit about Jennifer Niven before I begin this book review—for the sake of those unfamiliar with the author.

Jennifer is the daughter of Penelope Niven, who was also an accomplished writer. In the early stages of Jennifer’s career, she wrote nonfiction, which was her mother’s genre. When she published Velva Jean Learns to Drive, she was venturing into the world of fiction, and I became one of her biggest fans. Velva Jean was a heroine that I rooted for, that I loved, that I wanted to be like. Jennifer had me hooked.

In 2015, Jennifer decided to switch age groups—from adults to teens—and, as a result, became a New York Times bestselling author with her book, All the Bright Places. The novel sold in many different countries. Jennifer gained international acclaim. More importantly, she became more than “just an author” to so many young people—she became an advocate for those with mental illness.

Holding Up the Universe is Jennifer’s newest young adult novel, scheduled to release on October 4, 2016.

Here is the synopsis:

Everyone thinks they know Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.” But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Following her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now, Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for EVERY POSSIBILITY LIFE HAS TO OFFER. In that moment, I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything.

Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the impossible art of giving people what they want, of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a newly acquired secret: he can’t recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He’s the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything in new and bad-ass ways, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone.

Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game — which lands them in group counseling and community service — Libby and Jack are both pissed, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel. . . . Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.

Jennifer Niven delivers another poignant, exhilarating love story about finding that person who sees you for who you are — and seeing them right back.

As a contributor to Germ Magazine (for the sake of transparency: it is an online publication created by Jennifer), I had the privilege of receiving an ARC of Holding Up the Universe in exchange for a review.

REVIEW (SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW):

Holding Up the UniverseRomance, for any age group, is not my genre of choice—but I have to admire Jennifer’s ability to make love stories feel true to real life. The romance between Libby and Jack starts slow and with lots of initial loathing. From there, it’s not an easy transition to love and acceptance.

Loosely based on Jennifer’s own experiences, she doesn’t sugar coat the hard issues, and I think that is what makes her writing so strong. The characters in this story are struggling to find the confidence to move forward with their lives. Libby is bullied for her weight. Jack is terrified he will lose everyone he loves if he tells them about his cognitive disorder. Jack’s brother carries a purse despite his schoolmates’ opinions of him. The list goes on.

A cowardly act inspires the bravery hidden in both Libby and Jack. They start to change the people around them, including each other, as they learn how to accept themselves and pursue their dreams. And interwoven with these trials is an underlying truth—that Libby and Jack are wanted simply as they are.

At times it is a heartbreaking journey, but I’m glad I tagged along to see all of the triumphs for our main characters. It’s like Niven’s writing invites you in and makes you want to stay for dinner. There is cordiality in her paragraphs, friendship in her sentences. Then she shakes it up with a dash of humor. There is a deliberate connection, like she’s reaching for the reader’s hand. Her writing does not suffer due to her intentions. On the contrary, her kindness magnifies the power of the story.

There were only a few things that bothered me, overall, about the book.

There were many minor characters and I eventually started to mix some of them up because of the sheer number of them. Oftentimes it was because a group of minor characters played a minute role in a single part of the novel, with only a brief mention of them later. The ones that were more concrete, like Caroline and Mr. Levine, I didn’t have too much trouble with. It was people like Kendra Wu, Jesselle Villegas, Jayvee De Castro, and Rachel that made me scratch my scalp. There were several times I had to stop reading to go back in the novel and figure out who these minor characters were.

And since we are on the topic of characters, I have to admit that many of them bordered on stereotypes. Jennifer’s writing was much stronger when she focused on holistic qualities of the characters, because it made them feel more like real human beings.

That being said, I think Holding Up the Universe deserves to be read. In these tumultuous times, we all need a little more empathy. Jennifer’s novel examines just how lovely and wanted all of us are—a message the world desperately needs.

Where You Should Be and When: Urgent Literary Events

Blue River, book drive, donations, literary journal, literary magazine, booksHi friends! There is an explosion of awesome literary events happening in my neck of the woods (and a few other places) that you need to know about. Here’s a quick run down, starting with the most urgent.

At the University of Nebraska Omaha (Omaha, NE):

Tonight 7 pm, Twyla M. Hansen and Tim Hunt will give a reading at the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center. Learn more here.

At Salem College (Winston-Salem, NC):

Tonight at 7 pm, Incunabula is releasing their newest installment of the magazine. Go support some emerging writers if you’re in the area. Learn more here.

At the Joslyn Art Museum (Omaha, NE):

The last Fair Use Reading of the year will be at the Joslyn Art Museum tomorrow night. Get there at 6:30 pm for seats. Make sure to bring books for Blue River‘s book drive! Meredith Spears, Nathan Sindelar, and Shelby Snedeker will be reading.

Enter to win an autographed copy of Pas de Deux: Part One (online):

You’ve got about a day before this opportunity is lost. Put your name in that hat. Also, check out Wynter S.K. and Pas de Deux.

At Salem College (Winston-Salem, NC):

A collegiate publications and journalists conference? Who dare take on such a momentous task? None other than Emily Wonder Woman Ramser of course. Check out this great opportunity coming up April 30. You can learn more here and—never fear—still register by emailing Emily at emily.ramser@salem.edu.

At Pageturners Lounge (Omaha, NE):

Another installment of the literary pub quiz is happening May 4 at 8 pm. Don’t forget to bring your books to donate to Blue River‘s book drive! Learn more about genius and event organizer Theodore Wheeler and about the event.

A Flash Fiction Class for $0.99 (online)?

Yes, the rumors are true, so hurry and sign up. Ilana Masad is teaching this course. Learn more about it here.

Blue River Book Drive (Omaha, NE):

Blue River is seeking book donations for an upcoming fundraiser. Please help us out if you can. Drop them off at Creighton University or at the Fair Use Reading or during the Literary Pub Quiz. Thanks for supporting literature!

Writers and Editors and Publishers! Oh my!: My First AWP Experience

Literary Friction, F(r)iction, F(r)iction #2, "When Continents Collide", L. N. Holmes, speculative fiction, magical realism, short story, AWP off-site event

As many of you know, I attended the Association of Writers and Writers Programs (AWP) conference in Los Angeles, California this year—an experience that was partly funded by the generous Creighton University. It was my first time attending an AWP conference and it was amazing.

My fellow writers Nate Sindelar, Maranda Loughlin, Arnie Hermes, and I embarked upon a cross-country adventure to the land of sunshine and starlight. Despite the madness of driving twenty-two hours and thirty-six minutes straight (roughly thirty hours after some stopping and set-backs), we decided to be brave and to make it a priority to see some of the scenery of the western United States. As expected, it was an exciting and perilous adventure.

Nebraska, birds, travel, AWP conference, LeeAnn Adams, L. N. HolmesWe began the first part of our journey through Nebraska in the early morning, the Monday before the conference. It seemed even the birds had gotten the message that now was the time to travel. As I had the privilege to sit in the back of the car for a while, I used that time to catch up on some shut-eye, to read a bit more of Ready Player One, and to—of course—write a bit. It seemed like very little time before we were entering Colorado, one of my favorite states in the U. S.

Colorado, Rocky Mountains, AWP, LeeAnn Adams, L. N. HolmesAs we climbed in elevation, I looked forward to seeing the Rocky Mountains again. The first time I saw the Rocky Mountains was at the Rocky Mountain National Park during a first year anniversary retreat with my husband. They were awe-inspiring then and they were still awe-inspiring the second time around. The mountains first appeared on the horizon like low-hanging clouds. As we drove closer, the sheer cliffs and evergreen trees, the snow caps and valleys, all came into clearer view.

We stopped in Denver, Colorado to peek our head into a bookstore (true to our nature) and for some food. However, only one could order the fish and chips. Nate and Arnie decided to participate in the 76th Hunger Games.

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Back on the road, we eventually drove far enough to reach Utah. In terms of fun, Utah was the opposite of Colorado. At night, heading down a mountain, it began to snow. Fortunately, we were using Maranda’s four-wheel-drive Jeep. Unfortunately, I was the one who had to drive through it. The roads and visibility became bad enough that I had to pull over. Nate informed us that the snowfall might not end for a couple of days. Nate decided to take over the driving. The rest of us watched for cars and other potential hazards. Traumatized, sleep-deprived, and terrified, we drove onward.

When the snow finally let up, Nate pulled over and allowed me to drive again. I made it only so far before we hit another pocket of the snowstorm and we were back to the dangerous conditions of before. This time there was a snow plow ahead of us. I decided I needed to go slow anyway and followed the plow for a while. I relied on Flogging Molly, Queens Of The Stone Age, Metallica, and Rush to keep me awake and alert—although, in retrospect, this might have been a bad choice because it made me want to drive faster than I was going and also seemed to heighten the drama of the event. Alas, I regret nothing (mainly because I didn’t kill us or wreck the car).

When I feared I would fall asleep if I went on any longer, I finally gave up the wheel to Maranda, who eventually became too tired as well. We parked the car briefly and got a few hours of much needed rest (I may or may not have had my mouth attractively hanging open in my sleep). Then we were off again.

Las Vegas, Nevada, desert, city, LeeAnn Adams, AWP conference, L. N. HolmesIMG_3233We were about to enter Las Vegas as the sun was peeking over the horizon. I didn’t have my contacts in at this point (I was not driving) and so everything was a bit hazy for me. What I remember is the desert in its darkness and then all of a sudden there was what looked like a massive grid of lights sprawling before us. We were tired, and not so interested in Vegas’s flashy advertisements at the moment, so we drove straight through. I did manage to snap a blurry picture or two.

From there we drove through the desert to California. I remember thinking as we were winding through the mountains that everything was so beautiful. The rock faces, the wildflowers, the array of colors, the sunshine—I felt as if, maybe not so surprisingly, I’d stepped into a movie. I wondered when the Indominus Rex would come storming down one of the mountainsides or when Bumblebee and Megatron would make a crash-landing into the middle of the freeway.

IMG_3267 (1)When we finally got to LA, I met our host and Nate’s friend Nathan (yes, I know many people with Nate/Nathan names). He was a stellar guy, let me tell you, and even more so for letting us crash for free in his living room for nearly a week. We found out his roommate, Tevin, who happened to be an accomplished slam poet and in the know about the local writing scene, was also wicked cool.

Nathan took us to some great places in downtown LA. We got some amazing coffee, excellent food, and—of course—visited a bookstore. The Last Bookstore was probably one of the coolest places I’ve ever had the privilege to visit. Set up like a sort of maze (the upstairs is called the labyrinth), there were all kinds of books in nearly every genre. The horror vault and the bench made out of an old, Chevy pickup truck tailgate sealed my love for this place—but there were all kinds of cool displays that made the store feel downright magical. There were even readings going on when we visited, which were entertaining and often comical. I think I would be happy living my last days at The Last Bookstore during the end of the world.

The next day we went to Donut Friend in Highland Park and then onward to Venice Beach and Hollywood. It was an amazing day, filled with great food and wonderful company.

We also set up the booth for the AWP book fair. We were representing the Creighton University MFA program, Blue River, and Brighthorse Books. We even had the chance to pass out information about Theodore Wheeler, an accomplished Creighton MFA alumnus.

AWP conference, LA, California, LeeAnn Adams, L. N. Holmes

Arnie, me, Nate, Maranda

Thursday was when the real madness began and it continued through Friday and Saturday. AWP is a huge conference with more than 12,000 attendees and it only gets bigger as the years go on. The Los Angeles Convention center was huge, but they also had panels in the Marriott across the street. You almost had to take a whole day to check out all of the book fair booths. It was pure bliss to see so many people that cared about the written word and the power of poetry and prose. I met some really fantastic people, from the very accomplished to the new professional. There were so many on-site and off-site events that one could only attend a small fraction of them.

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From left: the moderator (I apologize for forgetting her name), Emily St. John Mandel, Kelly Link, and Ruth Ozeki

I really enjoyed the speculative, young adult, and publishing industry panels I attended. There was a great deal to learn about the politics of writing and publishing. I’ll never forget seeing three of my favorite authors—Kelly Link, Emily St. John Mandel, and Ruth Ozeki—on stage during the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau panel.

 

Literary Friction, F(r)iction, F(r)iction #2, "When Continents Collide", L. N. Holmes, speculative fiction, magical realism, short story, AWP off-site event

Nate, Maranda, Arnie, and my professor Mary Helen Stefaniak came to support me. Nate took this photo. 

I also had the privilege Thursday night, thanks to the amazing editors of F(r)iction, to be part of an AWP off-site event called Literary FrictionAndrew McFadyen-Ketchum was our host and a representative of all three organizations that put on the event—F(r)ictionFloodgate Poetry Series, and poemoftheweek.org. I was in the company of some serious talent—Anders Carlson-Wee and Kai Carlson-Wee, F. Douglas Brown, Geffrey DavisNicky Beer, Scott O’ConnorPaisley RekdalCampbell McGrath, Simone Muench, and Lynn Emanuel. Their work was at times breathtaking, at times heart-wrenching, and at times rather hilarious. It was so wonderful I had to keep telling myself it wasn’t a dream and that I was really at These Days Gallery, reading an excerpt of “When Continents Collide” alongside these amazing writers.

Friday evening, I had the pleasure of meeting up with one of the professors who taught many of my creative writing courses at Salem College, Aimee Mepham (read “The Blacklisting of Sweet Kiss” and “Raving Ones“). Catching up with her over dinner was such a blessing. Her endless hard work and dedication to her craft really inspire me.

When Sunday rolled around, it was time to head back to Nebraska. We bid farewell to Nathan and Tevin and began the journey home. We decided to take a southern route to avoid any more snowy mountain passes. On the way, we couldn’t resist making a stop on the edge of the Mojave National Preserve.

Then we traveled through Arizona—stopping for dinner in Flagstaff to check out the scene and another bookstore—, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas. I felt very blessed to see parts of this beautiful country that I had never seen before.

My first experience with the AWP conference was wonderful. I understand there are those who do not enjoy it and I empathize. But I can honestly say it was one of the best decisions of my life to go to this conference. I owe a lot of thanks to a lot of people and I hope by now they know I’m grateful. I will take the things I’ve learned and use them to help others and myself as we all continue our literary journeys.

 

Upcoming Events and Another Writing Update

Writing Before Work

Finding the time is hard, so I often have to make time. Today, I’m working on revisions before heading off to work.

Can you tell this graduate student is a busy person? I apologize for not updating more often. But don’t worry, this blog isn’t going away. I’m merely working hard on my short stories and novel (and working hard every moment in between). I hope that I’ll have some great stuff to present to you within the next few years.

I wanted to let you know of some exciting upcoming events, but first let me start with some general writing updates.

I have two new projects rolling with Germ Magazine and Change Seven Magazine. One of them is available right now for readers, the other is forthcoming.

For Germ Magazine, I wrote a brief essay on the magical elements present in two books: The Cure for Dreaming and Belzhar. My main goal with this article was to talk about the importance of magical realism and to generate interest among young adults for the genre. Also, I wanted to give a rather brief history of the genre’s origins.

The article for Change Seven Magazine is a forthcoming interview with Ann Pancake. If you’re not familiar with Strange As This Weather Has Been, Ann’s novel, you should put it on your to-read-immediately list. It’s a beautiful work of art. It’s also a successful political novel. If you want to find out more, watch the Change Seven Magazine site for the interview. I’ll also post a link on my Twitter feed when it is available to readers.

As far as my fictional writing goes, I’ve got two short stories I’m revising and I’m working hard on my novel. Workshops for the piece have been intense, but I’m closer to a finished project.

How about you, writing friends? How are your projects going?

Upcoming events:

AWP Conference
The annual conference for the AWP organization will be held in Los Angeles this year. A few of my brave classmates and I will be heading to the sunny city to represent the Creighton University MFA program and Blue River. We hope to see you there!

F(r)iction, Tethered by Letters, AWP, offsite event, 2016, These Days GalleryLiterary Friction
This is an offsite AWP event. I will be reading part of my story that was featured in F(r)iction #2Talented artists like Paisley Rekdal, Campbell McGrath, Lynn Emanuel, Geffrey Davis, Simone Muench, F Douglas Brown, Anders Carlson-Wee, Kai Carlson-Wee, Nicky Beer, and Scott O’Connor will be performing as well.

Pageturners Literary Pub Quiz (Vol 2, Ed 4)
Interested in book trivia? Writer Theodore Wheeler is having another literary pub quiz at Pageturners Lounge and this time the quizmasters are Blue River‘s managing editors.

Why I’m Happy Reading Dystopian Novels

apocalypse, dystopia, novels, speculative, fiction, L. N. Holmes, writing, reading

No, I’m not a cruel robot propagating the idea that humans should be subservient to machines (OR AM I?). Simply put, reading dystopian novels makes me happy. Before you judge me, hear me out.

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