While I was away on my fabulous vacation and only receiving internet contact from the outside world sporadically, shit. blew. up. Which is how it always happens. Stuff I want to be snarky and sassy about always seems to take place when I’m incommunicado, while the scary, serious shit goes down when I can’t escape it. But late last week, when I heard about Handbook for Mortals: Book 1 of the series (actual title), the literal overnight success that swept up to the very top of the New York Times Young Adult bestseller list to unseat the reigning YA phenomenon, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, I had to get the scoop. Because I, like pretty much everyone who watched the scandal unfold over a few dozen hours, knew in the very bottom of my heart that there was absolutely no way that a book no one had ever heard of, from an author no one had ever heard of, released by a publisher no one had ever heard of, had managed to knock a new American classic out of the #1 slot by playing fair. As the sordid details unraveled, I was glued to my phone.
Unfortunately, I had to do some extreme shit to get a signal.
But it was all worth it. Because there’s nothing I hate more than seeing someone game the system to get ahead of other authors who work far harder and deserve it so much more, and on this one, shining, rare occasion, that someone was exposed for their lazy, obvious fraud.
Writer Kayleigh Donaldson did an amazing job of reporting the story, which was broken by author and publisher Phil Stamper, who investigated the details with bookseller Jeremy West. You can read the whole sordid tale here, and I really hope that you do because it’s epic and so full of absurd twists and turns that it could have been a screenplay about a con gone wrong written by Danny DeVito. The basic run down is, bulk orders for Handbook for Mortals: Book 1 of the series started rolling in exclusively at bookstores that report to the NYT list. The book wasn’t available in any physical form at any bookstore, anywhere, and it was listed as out of stock and ranked lower than #100,000 on Amazon, but the bulk order stats boosted the title to the top of the NYT chart. The resulting scandal involved a veritable who’s who of late ’90s, early ’00s people you go, “Who?” about. Like…Blues Traveler is somehow involved, and the chick who played Glorificus on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and culminated in the New York Times revising and printing a corrected list which returned The Hate U Give to its rightful place.
But that’s not all, friends. That is not all. Lani Sarem, clearly aware that a cute white author with quirky hair can usually get away with anything short of murder and win the support of racist garbage people, just so long as whatever the hell it is they’re doing can knock an author of color down a peg or two, decided she was going to play the “poor, attacked” author card. From The Hollywood Reporter:
She believes The Times caved to social media pressure. “My personal opinion: I’m a first time author; I did some great numbers,” Sarem says. “They put me on the list. The list is curated. They didn’t have to put me on the list despite how many books I sold. When these people made a big issue, they were like, ‘This is too much effort.’ ”
That’s right, everyone. The people who objected to lazy, transparent manipulation of the system in an attempted shortcut to literary fame and fortune are just, dare I say it, jealous haters?
“The last book that caused a lot of controversy was Fifty Shades of Grey,” Sarem points out. “And it was caused by the book community because it was nothing like what they’ve put out. Whether you like the book or hate it, you have to acknowledge it outsold everything.” She continues, “I remember seeing an article where someone in publishing said we had to stand up and look at this because there were people out there that wanted to read this and we would never have put it out. That’s what people forget. There’s a world out there of people that read books; they just don’t exist in this little pocket, in this niche.”
Lani. Honey. Sugar. Baby doll. You did not need to make this so easy for Mother Trout.
So, here we are, at the start of another Jealous Hater’s Book Club, skewering yet another con-artist author touting herself as the Lewis and Clarke of an entire genre. Because Handbook for Mortals isn’t just another badly written wish-fulfillment urban fantasy that makes the legendary My Immortal read like Tolstoy in comparison– Oh, wait, I’m sorry. That was a typo. It should have read, Handbook for Mortals is just another badly written wish-fulfillment urban fantasy that makes the legendary My Immortal read like Tolstoy in comparison. In fact, it started out on Wattpad, a site known for fanfic (although it does feature original works), so it has common internet roots with both My Immortal and Fifty Shades of Grey. At least this isn’t a blatant rip-off of someone else’s work, though.
Without further ado, let’s get into Handbook for Mortals!
Oh, shit, wait, sorry. That’s The Knife-Thrower by Gill Del-Mace. This is the cover of Handbook for Mortals, a blatant rip-off of someone else’s work:
Yeah, Bleeding Cool covered that part of the story.
I want to start off with a look at the back cover copy. Because it’s important to know what we’re getting into.
Zade Holder has always been a free-spirited young woman, from a long dynasty of tarot-card readers, fortunetellers, and practitioners of magick. Growing up in a small town and never quite fitting in, Zade is determined to forge her own path. She leaves her home in Tennessee to break free from her overprotective mother Dela, the local resident spellcaster and fortuneteller.
Zade travels to Las Vegas and uses supernatural powers to become part of a premiere magic show led by the infamous magician Charles Spellman. Zade fits right in with his troupe of artists and misfits. After all, when everyone is slightly eccentric, appearing ”normal” is much less important.
Behind the scenes of this multimillion-dollar production, Zade finds herself caught in a love triangle with Mac, the show’s good-looking but rough-around-the-edges technical director and Jackson, the tall, dark, handsome and charming bandleader.
Zade’s secrets and the struggle to choose between Mac or Jackson creates reckless tension during the grand finale of the show. Using Chaos magick, which is known for being unpredictable, she tests her abilities as a spellcaster farther than she’s ever tried and finds herself at death’s door. Her fate is left in the hands of a mortal who does not believe in a world of real magick, a fortuneteller who knew one day Zade would put herself in danger and a dagger with mystical powers…
Handbook for Mortals is the first book in the series of this urban fantasy, paranormal romance series by author Lani Sarem.
Following Zade through the trials–and romance–of finding her own place in the world, readers will identify with their own struggles to fit in, reflected in the fantastic, yet mundane world of Zade’s life.
Oh. Well. I guess we don’t really have to read the book now, do we? Since you kind of just told us everything we needed to know, except for the end, which I guarantee we won’t give a shit about, anyway. Because this book is horrible. But let’s really talk about the fact that the book blurb itself categorizes this as “urban fantasy, paranormal romance,” yet they scammed it on the YA list. Why on earth would anyone want to do that? If you’ve done the recommended reading above, you already know the answer. But:
Handbook for Mortals is in development as a motion picture set to debut in 2018.
So, it makes sense that since the most recent YA book to hit #1 on the list got a big time movie deal, getting this book to the top would pay off for this one, too. The difference between the legitimate movie that The Hate U Give will be and whatever direct-to-Cinemax low-budget trash Handbook for Mortals is fated to become is that the guy who jizzes into the beer Stifler drinks at the beginning of American Pie is attached to direct and star in Mortals, while The Hate U Give has to settle for Image Award nominated director George Tillman, Jr. and The Hunger Games star, Amandla Stenberg.
Handbook for Mortals begins with a foreword by author Skye Turner (yeah, me neither), in which the pronunciation of Lani Sarem’s impossibly confusing first name is cleared up:
It is Laannee or as she would say Annie with an L, just in case you were also wondering. At first, I wasn’t even sure of the pronunciation of her name…was it Lae-nee or Lan-ee?!
Just in case you’re not clear on how unique and exotic Sarem is, Turner goes on to describe her friend as having “a bit of a g—y soul” and a “nomad life” as a tour manager, as well as how she and Laaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnnnniiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeeooooooooouuuuuuuuuand-sometimes-y first met:
You see; this bestselling young adult vampire series was filming the final two of the five films in the series near my home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Because my friends were superfans of the series and one the actors in the films, I started a Facebook page for fun.
The actor is Jackson Rathbone, by the way. Twilight fucks us once again. Why do the things I love always hurt me?
Basically, Turner started a fan page for Twilight and then Sarem, who represented Rathbone’s band, got to know Turner through it. Later Sarem helped Turner by beta reading the “International Bestseller” that Turner wrote, which through a little sleuthing appears to be Alluring Turmoil Book 1 Bayou Stix (yeah, me neither). Then Turner returned the favor when Sarem wrote a screenplay called Handbook for Mortals:
She asked me for my opinion on it and though it was vastly different from the novels I write and the process, layout, and depth of description are nothing alike, I devoured the plot. The story was good.
This is somehow both a wildly unsubtle neg and vicious self-burn at the same time.
Turner goes on to describe how Sarem adapted the screenplay into a book, which is, of course, referred to as her “baby” by Turner.
I told Lani that I enjoyed this book far more than other books of the genre that have exploded. That wasn’t idle talk or a friend telling another friend something nice so as not to hurt their feelings. It was real and it was honest.
Either Skye Turner was tied to a chair in a damp basement, sobbing as she scrawled this out with a shaking hand as she pleaded with her captors to let her live, or she knows the book is total shit and wanted to see her frenemy humiliate herself the way Galinda humiliated Elphaba by convincing her to wear that pointy hat.
As an author myself,
Holy shit, are you an author, Skye? I feel like you haven’t mentioned it yet in this forward to your friend’s book that you are supposed to be writing about your friend and her book.
I tend to be a bit snobbish about books. While I enjoy a good many books for their entertainment value and I absolutely respect every single author that has the gumption to take a chance and put themselves and their work out there, I rarely “love” a book. This is a book I loved.
Handbook for Mortals is a book I cannot wait for you to read. I see big things ahead. After all, who can resist succumbing to a little magick…
So, let’s head on over to the first chapter, or Chapter 0 The Fool. See, there is a chapter for every card in the Major Arcana. I really hope there’s a lot of tarot shit in this book, because full disclosure, I’ve read cards for like, twenty years now and I’m looking forward to laughing at how ooky spooky interesting it makes someone.
I’ve always envied those with normal lives. I don’t think I’ve ever even had a normal month, a plain week, or an average day. At best, I’ve had brief normal moments here and there.
98% of these brief normal moments have occurred at a Hot Topic.
I’m sure most people would envy me, but some days I think I’d trade places in a heartbeat.
Woe is me, the object of everyone’s envy.
To me, those moments of feeling normal or getting to do average things have always felt like a cool sparse breeze on the hottest summer day, or the first breath you take after holding it underwater for as long as you can.
Or whatever other metaphor that comes to mind without too much thought.
The grass is always greener, so to speak.
Right, like that one.
I won’t cover everything that has been crazy or unusual in my life.
I’m on page two and I feel like you literally have already done that. Our narrator tells us that if she tried to list all the ways she’s not normal, the book would be much longer. I’m already considering sending her a thank you card for sparing us.
Instead, I’ll start on the day I left home. It marked a turning point–a fork in the road, if you will.
Somebody bought Lani Sarem the Trite Metaphor A Day calendar. I’m not saying it was Skye Turner, but it was probably Skye Turner. But the bold choice to tell the reader when the story starts instead of just starting the story there is probably all Sarem’s work.
Ever try really hard to make something happen, but no matter what you do you can’t seem to make it work? You fight and kick and scream, but you end up right where you’re supposed to be–which might not be where you want to be. That’s when Destiny has grabbed your hand and said, “Hey! You’re coming with me!”
I know exactly how that feels. I felt it when I downloaded the sample of this book. And here we are now.
Now that the future and destiny and shit has been covered, we launch into the past with a poignant reflection on memory. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of memory, don’t worry. The author will explain it for you. Four. Times.
People say some memories will stick with you forever. They burn brightly in your mind and each detail is as clear as the day it happened. Each color, each smell, the way things felt, the way you felt–it all pierces your mind each time you think about it. You can practically place yourself there at that moment, as if it were happening all over again. Close your eyes and breathe in deep and all of a sudden you are back in that time and that place.
I want to point out that at 3% into the book, the story hasn’t started and nothing has happened except the narrator talking directly at us about the story she’s going to get around to telling.
For me, I will never forget one particular July morning;
Okay, here we go, guys.
the grey clouds that hovered over the ancient trees lining the street; the wind that blew swiflty through my blonde hair.
Finally, we’re getting somewhere.
It also spun about the chunky pieces on the lower half of my long hair, which I had dyed to be a multitude of fun colors. Today they were pink, purple, blue, and turquoise green, but I have a habit of changing colors frequently.
Son of a bitch.
My perfectly cut bangs stayed mostly unaffected by the wind except for a few squirrely pieces.
See that? That’s author Lani Sarem, with the chunky dyed pieces of blue at the bottom of her long, blonde hair, complete with perfectly cut bangs. It bears noting that Lani Sarem is slated for the starring role in the movie adaption of her book. There has never, in all of recorded human history, ever been so obvious a self-insert character.
Well, I mean, except for all those novels where middle-aged writers or professors end up having affairs with much younger women, but I didn’t have time to count all of those and give our narrator an actual rank.
So, anyway, a storm’s a-brewin’, but that doesn’t bother Lani:
Most people prefer sunny days and puffy white clouds, but not me.
Of course not. You’re unique.
After a paragraph about how storms are so amazing because something magical and unexpected might happen (and of course it makes complete sense for our heroine who longs for a normal life like everyone else’s to really enjoy the possibility of weird, paranormal shit happening), we move on to the story.
SIKE! We can’t possibly get into the story if we don’t know the history of the town:
I’d lived in that one-horse southern town my whole life, practically a quarter of a century.
Which town? That town. The one that Lani has already told us she’s leaving, but which we need to know the history of, including the fact that her ancestors founded it and it was once the Tennessee state capital before Andrew Jackson changed it.
Lani informs us that her mother is the “area tarot card reader and spell caster” and that people in town don’t approve of them. They still seek her mother’s advice and help, as do people from all over the state and beyond. There are a few lines about notable soothsayers in the Bible which read like a rebellious Christian teen’s defense of her Ouija board and incense, and a condemnation of the hypocrisy of the townsfolk.
That might be the worst part, knowing they actually believe in it as well but they are all just afraid to admit it. Though if they really knew what we actually were they’d probably end up reopending the old “burning people at the stake” idea. Something our family is quite familiar with.
Jesus Christ, just say you’re witches and move on with this. Also, if Lani’s ancestors founded the town and were burned at the stake, wouldn’t it stand to reason that the townspeople already knew what Lani and her mother were? And her mother is already doing spells and shit for the people in town. You know who casts spells?
But for the sake of authorial intent, let’s all pretend we don’t see this amazing reveal from seventeen lunar distances away when it’s finally spelled out for us three or four times in one paragraph.
Regardless, it’s been hard for me because of it.
Wait, regardless of the fact that the townsfolk would burn you at the stake, it’s been hard for you? Getting potentially burned at the stake is the easy part, and regardless of that, things are still hard? Words mean things. You can’t just go, “This sounds like a smart transition,” and slap it on there, fully ignoring the context of the last paragraph.
Regardless, Lani had a hard time making friends or dating because the simple, close-minded hypocrites of her poor provincial town wouldn’t let their kids hang out with her.
It’s hard to be looked at not for who you are but for what people think you are.
I feel like another book explores that theme much better than this one will. You know. The one you scammed out of the #1 spot on the NYT list?
After one long, deep breath I pushed myself off of the top step of the huge porch that wrapped around the antique house and pounded down the wooden steps that led away from the house my family has owned for more than 150 years.
Some preps stared at me. I put my middle finger up at them.
But seriously, did something just happen? 4% into the book, did the narrator actually take physical action? And it’s kind of exciting! Lani is escaping from the huge porch that’s pounding down the wooden steps away from the antique house. Action-packed already.
My favorite high-waisted Levi’s dark denim skinny jeans–ripped in all the right places–made the swishing noise as I lifted my legs and my perfect flowy Lucky’s top that I wear far too often billowed around me. I rarely think this but I wish a photographer had taken my picture at that moment as the outfit and the background and I may have produced a cool-looking photo.
I’m starting to sense a pattern. For every action, there must be at least one paragraph of description or introspection. Because she goes on to describe the house (a miniature reproduction of Tara from Gone With The Wind) before she can put her luggage in her car. This also gives her an opportunity to…
here it comes…
I glanced at myself in the reflection of the car side mirror.
We have mirror reflection self-description sign!
People tell me I’m pretty all the time, beautiful even. I’m not sure what they see. I think I’m more of a cute, average looking girl.
I’m slender but I do not believe most would say skinny. Not “hot-girl skinny,” at least. I have long legs that are toned but I think my thighs are too large and I do not have a thigh gap. My arms are kinda flabby and while I do have an hourglass figure I have always felt my butt is a little too big and my face is a bit too round.
You saw all of that in the side mirror? And, like Anabella Steele-Grey-Swan, Lani’s most grotesque physical characteristics, unfortunately, coincide with societal beauty standards. Woe is her, to have a big ass, thick thighs, long legs, and an hourglass figure. I’m sure the bell she has to ring to warn the villagers of her approach gets heavy.
Maybe people are just being nice.
The people who want to burn you at the stake and won’t let their kids talk to you?
In a small town where everyone looks like they fell out of Mayberry, I think I look different.
Not to be that gal, because I like a little color up top, myself, but I feel like that has something to do with the blue hair you described as “shimmering” in an earlier paragraph.
I know how the neighbors described me as sweet and kind, but rough around the edges.
So, the people of this town constantly tell her she’s beautiful, describe her as sweet and kind, but don’t want their progeny to associate with her and are one bad harvest away from burning her alive. I mean, I guess I see the point. I’m only 4% into this book and I want to set this living embodiment of imaginary problems on fire.
I’ve just always thought I was a determined free spirit and tough only when necessary.
That’s right off a casting sheet if I ever saw one. “Lani or Zade or whatever. (Definitely caucasian and almost guaranteed to lament her pale skin later, 18+) Sweet and kind, but rough around the edges. Determined free spirit. Tough when necessary. Beautiful, but doesn’t know it.”
Lani’s mother comes outside, and Lani explains that they look exactly alike.
There’s something about her that says “old soul.” It’s something tha tyou can see in her eyes–she says you can see it in mine, too. She says it means we’ve lived many lives. But I haven’t felt like I’ve been able to live much in this one. That’s all I’m trying to do, I guess. Just live.
FACT: You have now forgotten something from 8th-grade social studies that would have come in handy in an internet argument later this week. It has been replaced with all of this. But the bright side is that we’re seeing clear-cut motivation here. Fetch me my smelling salts and a gif of someone fainting.
My eyes darted to her dark blonde hair, which shone despite the lack of sunlight.
Is anyone else imagining that her mom is shittily green-screened into her life?
Lani asks her mom if she’s supposed to be happy in this quiet village where every day is like the one before, just reading tarot cards and living at home. Low-budget CGI mom says:
“But, Zade, I thought you liked reading cards. I thought you liked this kind of life.”
Finally, we have a name. We know everything else about this character, but not her name. And now I will reject that name and just call her Zani.
She was right. A big part of me loved the place and being there with her. It was comfortable. And, as much as I wasn’t always completely accepted by everyone in the town, I still belonged.
I’ve been trying to keep track of the times Zani has contradicted herself, but math itself hasn’t found a number that high. She wants to be normal, but she hopes for magic to happen during storms and dyes her hair wacky colors to stand out. Everyone wants to burn her at the stake, but they’re super nice and she feels like she belongs among them. I don’t want to point fingers, but it sounds like someone is kicking and screaming against destiny here.
My mom and I had enlightened some people in town and taught them to understand that not everything we are brought up to believe in the world is true. Some were starting to see things different and, in a few years, maybe I would even be treated like everyone else.
So, why not stay? I seriously do not understand the manufacturing process of this drama.
Regardless of all these things, I knew if I stayed I would regret it for the rest of my life. I had to do more.
That’s it! That’s all you needed! “I want to leave because there must be more than this provincial life” is a perfectly valid motivation/call to adventure. We don’t need all of this other crap about how the super nice mean townspeople are going to come for you with pitchforks and shower you with compliments about your Technicolor dream hair! “I’m restless in this small town” is far less confusing than, “I have to leave this normal town where everything is too normal because I want a normal life full of magic and blue hair.”
For no apparent reason, Zade tells us about her learning disability:
Due to my dyslexia, I could write things perfectly–but I wrote them backwards. It wasn’t till I was nine almost ten I could write the proper way without a lot of thought. It baffled my teachers but was something “normal” for me.
One, that is like, 100% not how dyslexia works. It’s not just writing backwards and not understanding that you’re not writing the way other people do. And I can’t remember any of my teachers being baffled by my dyslexia because it’s a pretty common learning disability. Something like 10% of all people have it or something.
It was also a cool trick at school as I learned to write fast in either direction.
Awesome! My cool trick that I can do with dyslexia is get put in special ed classes and graduate with a 2.0 GPA. And what does this have to do with anything else in this paragraph? Yes. Paragraph. Oh, didn’t I mention that EVERYTHING AFTER HER MOTHER’S INITIAL DIALOGUE IS ONE GIANT BLOCK PARAGRAPH?
I chewed hard on my lip a nervous tick of mine that I did so often I had a permanent dent on my bottom lip.
Hang on tight, because I think we’re in a Twilight/Fifty Shades of Grey/The Raven Cycle cross-over fanfic here, and we’re still not free from the block paragraph of horror.
“[…]I need to go somewhere where people don’t know. Where they don’t whisper and stare like I have horns growing out of my head. Where I can meet new people and just be a a normal person for once.”
Pretty and kind and casting spells!
A beautiful not normal girl
A super modest self-insert!
“Why try to fit in, when you were born to stand out?”I always retorted with, “Why would I want to stand out? People who stand out get things thrown at them. People who stand out get called names and shoved into lockers. If the people who don’t stand out are too cowardly to do any of the previously mentioned options then they just awkwardly whisper about you–the people who do stand out–as you walk by.”
“Yes, Mom. You know what? I don’t know how you ever got away with keeping me out here for so long, anyway.” My eyes narrowed as I confronted the issue we had never really talked about. I looked down again as I finished my sentence. It was a hard subject for both of us, and something we both seemed to usually avoid.
“I had my ways,” she said so quietly I barely heard her. I looked up to see she wasn’t even looking at me as she answered. She was looking off into the distance. I knew that she really didn’t want me to hear her answer. I sighed deeply as I glared at my mom, waiting for her to look at me again before I answered.
“Stop!” I shouted in anger. “I don’t want to hear it. I’m not you, okay?” I inhaled deeply and tried to relax. “I have my own life, and I think you were really selfish for what you did.” She winced, wounded. The truth hurts, or so she’d always told me.
“Please, what? Haven’t you ruined enough of my life?” I immediately wanted to take it back. I didn’t mean it. Why had I said that?
Before I could change my mind I jumped into my car, quickly fastened my seatbelt and backed out of the driveway. I turned the radio on right after I threw my car in drive and the most appropriate song came blaring through the speakers of my car. It was the opening lyrics to the Dixie Chick’s song “Wide Open Spaces.” I couldn’t help but laugh at how truly that was my anthem at the moment.
No truer words could be spoken as I headed for my own wide-open spaces out west. Even the “high stakes” reference was perfect, considering I was headed toward Las Vegas.
I had a long road ahead of me–and an even longer road when I got there–but it was what I knew I needed to do, without any doubt.