Some people like to watch the world burn. Lani Sarem must be the type to watch the world burn through a mirror on the moon of which she can bask in her own reflection and the Earth’s while the recordings of her confessing her love life fantasies to her therapist play across all emergency broadcast systems. Y’know. Just to make the whole ordeal inescapably painful for everyone still untouched by the flames. Handbook for Mortals has stirred up an incredible amount of controversy since its arrival and removal from the New York Times bestseller list. Is this creation redeemable of being separated from its creator’s sins? Absolutely not.
I first heard about the book from a Nerdist article speaking about the cover reveal. What can I say? As an artist and a writer, I’m a sucker for graphic novel-looking cover art. It’s interesting enough to warrant a look to the synopsis. And that’s when everything begins to fall apart at the seams. (If you could even find a hard copy anywhere, but you probably can’t because they were allegedly bought out in bulk.) The description on Amazon has absolutely no tagline, logline, or any kind of line to pull any kind of interest. It is but a mere summary of 477 pages worth of agony. It’s not even an interesting one.
Opening to the first part of the free preview, it begins with an odd forward from someone whom seems to be friends with the author. You don’t find out who it is until the long passage of Lani’s ego-stroking is over. It astonishes me that the slur “g*psy” was allowed to be appropriated so freely by Lani, both in Skye’s foreward, and in Lani’s twitter handle, @rockanrollgypsy. Continuing on from that mess, you get to Chapter 0. I understand that the chapters are titled to mimic the major arcana of tarot cards, but starting a debut book with a foreword and a Chapter 0 isn’t intuitive in any form, something of which is a reoccurring theme from the preview: idiocy.
The first chapter, albeit technically chapter 0, or perhaps a prologue, begins with the protagonist declaring her wish to be normal and talking about how her life isn’t normal. That’d be cool and all if it actually went beyond “I don’t think I’ve ever even had a normal month, a plain week, or an average day.” She says nothing about what makes it abnormal. After some cliché phrases, she —meaning the Zade/Lani combo because it’s clearly just her idealized self— breaks the fourth wall to excuse not telling us any single detail about her #weird life by saying, “I won’t cover everything that has been crazy or unusual in my life. If I did, this would end up being a much larger book and would take entirely too long to read.” I fear for whoever saw the first draft of this monster if this wasn’t it already.
We don’t get anything visually solid to hold onto about the current situation of the narrative until the character is describing herself. Even then I’m increasingly unsure if it relates to the first interactions that happen later. Lani makes it important to state each and every color on her head —oops, I meant Zade’s head— and continues to blast the reader out the ass with words as if someone ate a chipotle burrito wrapped in dictionary pages. When she isn’t describing herself, Zade’s elaborating on her hardships of how boys liked her but weren’t allowed to date her because people looked at her not because of “who [she is] but for what people think [she is].” Who are people supposed to think she is? The premise of the story is that she’s got supernatural powers. I’d say that’s generally a standard thing people get unnerved about, especially coming from a family of the magick users.
(Image from Lisa Hendricks of GeekNation Press.) Seriously. They don’t even try to hide the resemblance.
The story painfully moves on to speak about how Zade was not “hot girl skinny” and other cringe-worthy descriptions featuring name brands the readers wouldn’t care about, and only prove how self worshipping both the author and character are. Once it finally gets to some point of action, Zade gets into a fight with her mother. You know. The typical ‘your dreams aren’t my dreams, mom!’ fight. She embarks to Las Vegas to try to live a normal life as a part of a magic act. Let that sink in on you. Give that another read if you must.
Chapter 1 itself is where some form of action kicks in. Zade’s late to what appears to be a try-out, rehearsal, or interview —where we have no idea how Zade got the opportunity in the first place— and everyone waited for her. I’ve only worked in a couple of school plays for comparison, but you damn well bet everyone, even the crew, wasn’t waiting around for some n00b to arrive to get shit done. Immediately the character is being checked out and flaunted over whenever she’s not being evilly eyed by women that are implied to be jealous of her. Then Zade bursts into a lecture about what goes on behind the scenes with the different jobs, along with preaching the importance of learning how to pronounce her name. The author, Lani, had worked as a band manager for Blues Traveler, 100 Monkeys, and Plain White T’s in the past, and I’m sure was eager to explain things to the audience that she thought was interesting. Only we don’t care. It’s not important, or at least not important at that moment of time to any part of the plot. At that point I began to check out, but that’s okay because the preview was pretty much over at that point.
I tried to remember if I ever wrote that pointlessly before in my life, and was relieved that I have not. I’ve got first drafts of stories written when I was literally 11 that read more fluently than what this is.
It was a normal day, when the snow, was apparently three feet high. My long dirty blonde hair kept on getting in my face when I had to hop over piles of snow. When I walked to the bus stop, only around the corner from my house, I sunk a million times. I finally decided to hit the snow with my back pack to get to the bus stop. It was like a snowy jungle. I finally saw the bus stop, with a pile of snow where we would stand and wait.
“Hey Nellie,” Anna my short brunette friend, said, sitting on the top of the mountain of snow.
“How come you aren’t sinking,” I asked, leaning against a tower.
“I’m light.” She said, and it was true. She was in fifth grade; one grade below me, but looked like a kindergartner.
“You suck,” I said.
(That was an excerpt from an old story of mine from when I was 11. This has more of a character arc than the Handbook for Mortals preview alone.)
I don’t have enough time to note every grammatical error laden within the work. Many people compare this to bad fanfiction, and I almost have to disagree. I’ve seen more cohesive bad fan fiction than this. There are sometimes words missing entirely from phrases that your mind fills in but once you have a second glance, they were never there to begin with. That’s the only magic within this book.
Unable to separate my contacts that were caked onto my eyes from the heat of this steaming pile shit, I began to read reviews of what were some sorry souls who had bought the book, and others who have conducted a bit of their own research. Not only are the reviews 79% 1 star ratings, Joseph Wentzel, an Amazon user, even went to suggest this:
The verified purchasers that gave five stars are very suspicious. I don’t doubt the book was purchased, but the reviews themselves feel fake. Nearly all of them are from August 20. Four days after publication! While advance copies do get distributed to garner reviews I did not see that indicated by the reviewers, although it is common and courteous to do so. Generally someone else in their family had already finished and they had started reading. The book is 477 pages, so these people must be voracious readers with nothing else in their lives (my apologies to those that actually do read this fast, but that is not the impression I got of the reviewers).
Not only that, but there are multiple people who claim that even the cover art has been knocked off. The Knife Thrower, a work by Gill Del-Mace, is what many are claiming to be where the cover lineart, created by Ryan M. Kincaid, was ripped off from. In fact, there’s a second painting as well, The Knife Thrower II, that seems to have elements taken from as well. It’s pretty clear they took the design of The Knife Thrower, and flipped it for the most part. I tried to find more information about the cover, and found where she shared Nerdist’s article about the cover reveal onto the series’ website, enthusiastically saying, “Myself, Thomas and Ryan Kincaid (the artist that drew it) worked on it for quite a while. We tossed around ideas on how she should be sitting what she should be wearing (just that conversation alone took forever).” So, Lani had a part in deciding the cover as well.
(Right, The Knife Thrower by Gill Del-Mace, Center The Knife Thrower II by Gil Del-Mace, and Left, Cover art of Handbook for Mortals by Ryan Kincaid, color done by Milen Parvanov)
If it wasn’t just the cover that was plagiarized, people have been scouring all corners of this book to figure out where else it derived from. Many of the characters also appear to be rip-offs of other famous people (like David Copperfield) and people she might’ve known (and creepily paired herself/Zade within the rest of the novel).
This is what happens when entitled, whiny white girls try to buy their way to the top. Although Lani naturally defended herself claiming that there wasn’t any planned buyouts of her book, the logistics still don’t match up. The woman only has 1,575 followers on Twitter. Theoretically, wouldn’t an author have a lot more followers than the amount of books sold, considering some wouldn’t buy it, instead of the opposite occur? Or even some amount of followers close to what was sold.
You know when you have to buy your way to the New York Times bestseller list —like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney— the content within the book isn’t worth buying if it can’t stand on its own to do that well. Why not try to make the best book you can and then send it to an editor? Or literally anyone who will give you a brutally honest edit? But don’t take it from me, take it from Lani Sarem who still somehow has a writing panel about the “process and lifestyle of a published author!” I wish I was joking.
— Lani Sarem (@RockanRollGypsy) September 22, 2017
This ordeal has definitely been a handbook for what not to do if you ever want a career in media. I eagerly await to see the legal issues that will stem out of this, not just the plagiarism but with the impersonations of actual people. To be clear, I would’ve never written this post if the book actually had some qualitative goodness to it. The premise, from afar, seems interesting. The more you look into the hat for that rabbit though, the more you see it’s been stuffed in there with a couple birds. And they’re all dead and decaying.