Molly Review, Guest Post and Giveaway: Antisocial by Heidi Cullinan

A single stroke can change your world.

Xander Fairchild can’t stand people in general and frat boys in particular, so when he’s forced to spend his summer working on his senior project with Skylar Stone, a silver-tongued Delta Sig with a trust fund who wants to make Xander over into a shiny new image, Xander is determined to resist. He came to idyllic, Japanese culture-soaked Benten College to hide and make manga, not to be transformed into a corporate clone in the eleventh hour.

Skylar’s life has been laid out for him since before he was born, but all it takes is one look at Xander’s artwork, and the veneer around him begins to crack. Xander himself does plenty of damage too. There’s something about the antisocial artist’s refusal to yield that forces Skylar to acknowledge how much his own orchestrated future is killing him slowly…as is the truth about his gray-spectrum sexuality, which he hasn’t dared to speak aloud, even to himself.

Through a summer of art and friendship, Xander and Skylar learn more about each other, themselves, and their feelings for one another. But as their senior year begins, they must decide if they will part ways and return to the dull futures they had planned, or if they will take a risk and leap into a brightly colored future—together.

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This story is wonderful. I loved the characters and how Mrs. Cullinan wove Japanese culture into the story and gave it a life of its own in the book and the fictional college in New York. This story touched my heart and I loved it from start to finish. Both Xander and Skylar were beautiful individuals. The people around them that supported them were just as beautiful and made this lovely family that supports each other unconditionally.

Xander was a total sweetheart in curmudgeon cloth. But he’s only a sweetheart for Skylar. For everyone else he still needed time to warm up to them. The way he just blossoms with Skylar and grows is amazing to watch. He’s so confident in himself by the end of the story. I loved the way his art was described in the story and how he gained confidence in himself through his art. His fierce protective self is so sexy to see. He doesn’t take anyone’s crap even if inside he’s scared and nervous. But he won’t let Skylar or any of his friends down.

Skylar’s transformation throughout the story is slower but no less profound. Watching as he learns to accept himself and reach for his dreams was lovely. My heart hurt for how he was treated by his parents and the mask he had to wear for everyone else. It was amazing seeing how he slowly chipped away at the suit he was forced to wear and exposed his real self. He was helped by Xander but also the members of the Lucky 7 literary magazine, Pamela, and Unc. Together they all showed Skylar it was ok to have dreams and reach for them; it was ok to choose your own path and not worry about what others wanted from you. Seeing Skylar completely happy by the end of the book was wonderful.

I loved how the Shichifuku were woven into the story; how the characters embodied the gods’ qualities or areas they oversaw, but were their own unique person as well. The way Xander and Skylar entwine their lives as the story goes on and you see those characteristics more and more was wonderful. I liked how each of the core group of friends embodied one of the gods. You could tell they all had a bond that couldn’t be broken and they’d all be friends for life and have a harmony to their friendships that goes beyond just getting along.

Mrs. Cullinan brings out the Japanese culture beautifully in this story. She showcases some of the best aspects of manga and anime. You get to see some of the art as it’s described in the story. You learn some of the highlights of history of Japan as Xander talks about art in relation to that history. I loved how she wove all of that together along with aspects of Shinto and made it something unique to the story and Benten College within the book. I adored this part of the story.

Xander and Skylar are beautiful together. They have a rocky start and some major obstacles in their path along the way. But oh my word are they lovely together. When Xander’s trying to hide from Skylar, but not really even if he won’t admit to himself he wants to be around Skylar, you can’t help but be excited about their journey. When Skylar’s justifying to himself not studying and not going to events, you  an see how much growing both characters are going to do in the story. It’s a beautiful slow burn story. I enjoyed watching both Skylar and Xander work to build each other up and help each other see their own self worth. The way they support each other was a joy to see. By the end of the book you can feel their happiness. You can tell they’re going to be together and figure out how to live their lives the best they can no matter what comes their way. I would love to see more of these two and all of the gang. I’m hoping for a sequel in the future because I don’t want these characters to be done.

Guest Post:
I’m honored to have Mrs. Cullinan stop by today to talk about sacred places, and how it relates to her newest book Antisocial. I adore how she set up her sacred place and the meaning behind the items there. Read and enjoy!
Thanks so much for having me here today! I’m here to tell you a little bit about my latest release, Antisocial. Antisocial is a new adult gay and asexual romance set in a fictional college in upstate New York between a one-percenter fraternity boy and a highly antisocial artist. One encounter with Xander Fairchild’s artwork is enough to turn Skylar Stone’s carefully orchestrated life upside down, unlacing his secrets and inviting him into a secret anime-soaked world with a new set of friends. But will they be brave enough to embrace their fragile new relationship and let it last beyond the summer?

In Antisocial, because the college the students attend has a not-small fixation with Japan and Japanese culture dating back to the 1880s, everyone is seeking allegedly hidden Shinto shrines around campus, though everyone also wonders about how these could possibly be “real” Shinto shrines, since there aren’t exactly Shinto priests around in rural New York state. Eventually people in the novel begin making their own altars, which aren’t Shinto and aren’t precisely anything, only their own version of worship and spiritual focus.

There are plot and underlying theme reasons for this inclusion in the story, but I personally enjoyed this inclusion because I myself have kept an altar for well over fifteen years now, one for myself in my office and one for my household. My daughter has kept one too, once younger as a charming ground for fairies and now as a focusing area for herself and a way to collect her own energies. I’ve encouraged many people, especially writers, to make altars, as I very much believe they can be beneficial.

I have specific views about belief and spiritual practice, and it’s that whatever else might be happening on the flip side of the equation, the most important part of any practice is what happens by the one doing the act of prayer, focus, or habit. It’s the energy put in, the habit made, the time taken, the consideration that makes things happen. Lest I get into a faith verses works argument—I’m not talking about what any kind of divine agents think about what we’re doing. My thoughts on that are probably unpopular all around. What I’m saying is that the act of sitting, lighting candles, arranging our focus and meditating, engaging in prayer, whatever our practice is, has a great deal of power, and that more than anything else, is what matters. For me, this is what it is all about.

I do, however, favor some divine agents over others, though I have respect for all of them as vehicles for getting humans out of their own heads and into a divine consciousness. Right now I’m particularly fond of Tenjin, the Shinto god of learning. I began praying to him for help with learning Japanese, but he’s somehow become my everyday god, catching prayers for all things. A friend of mine went to his shrine for me, deposited an offering for me, and came back with an offering card for me, which is now at my home altar—I feel like our connection is sealed now, and he and I are in this to the end. I don’t think it’s an accident that as I have struggled to find my feet in Japanese he sent me Mitzu-san, a retired Japanese man who oh-so patiently teaches me Japanese for forty minutes every week over Skype and has invited me to his home when someday I make it to Japan.

My altar has grown and changed over the years, but right now it has a pretty firm shape. Let me show you a picture, and give you a little tour.

First of all, in the back of the altar you see a framed picture. This is a portrait of Tenjin-sama which my daughter drew—it was her first commission. (She’s become quite the artist, but as visual artists are always asked to draw things for free, I’ve tried to teach her people may get things for free on their birthdays or if she chooses to make a gift to someone, but otherwise it is proper for people to offer money in exchange for her time and effort, and so this is what I do.) This is your first clue my shrine isn’t a kamidana, a Shinto home shrine—there would be no iconography there. But I really love my Tenjin picture.

To the left of Tenjin-sama you see what looks like a fan. That’s the prayer card Sara sent me. It has a lovely message from her on the back. It’s one of my most cherished items, both as a prayer card from Tenjin-sama’s shrine and as a message from her. Behind that you see some jars which contain nickels—those are the collected nickels I put down every day in offering. Usually I put down one per card, but when shit gets real I put down multiple. Two people have taken my nickels to Tenjin for me: first Nathalie, my cover artist, when she went to Japan, and then my friend Sara. I’m hoping the next person who takes them is me. (Then don’t actually take nickels, and they don’t take mine: I deposit them and send they money through PayPal.) Sara said giving my offering was one of the best moments of her trip, because she had so much money she had to ask where to give it, and the priests led her deep into a private area of the shrine to an offering area where she got to pray by herself. It sounded wonderful. And yes, it was shortly after that when I met Mitzu-san.

In front of the nickels is a statue of Ganesha. I have several statues of Ganesha—people keep giving them to me, which is wonderful, but this one is one of my favorites. Sadly one of the cats knocked him off long ago, and he is missing a few of his hands. But he’s still at my altar anyway, because he’s always been on my altar. I can’t bear to take him down.

In front of Tenjin-sama’s portrait you see a shot glass and a bowl. This is sake and green tea which I pour for Tenjin-sama every day. When I’m out of town, Anna does it for me. It’s part of my morning ritual, and I have a specific way I do it, washing the glasses and the area where I prepare everything. It really sets my morning up. I feel off when I don’t do it.

To the far right is a stand of Antisocial’s cover. Before it was this, there was the draft cover, and before that I had the collage version printed out and tucked under the rocks in the center. Generally I put the image of whatever book I’m working on or whatever person or image I’m focusing on here. Sometimes I focus on particular people to pray for them, and I put them here as well or instead. There’s also a turtle over here to remind me it’s a good idea to slow down.

In front of Ganesha and the Antisocial cover you see a bunch of little figures and an angry blue Funko. The little figures are the seven gods of fortune, and the Funo is Fudō Myōō. They sat on my desk during drafting and during initial promotion, but once I came home from RWA, I moved them to the altar, where they will probably just live now.

Now we get to the main body of the altar: the brown mat is like a containment area, everything on top of it being Serious Business. The female figure in the upper right is representative of me: the rock before her says “patience,” as it’s something I lack. The upper left has a male wizard figure, who represents one of my strongest and most important internal guides. He has a rock too, which I can’t really explain, but it needs to be there.

I think I’ll explain the candles next: sometimes I have more, when things are serious, but there’s always a main candle in the back, and I always have some kind of focusing message on it, something important that I’m needing right now, that I’m working on. For example, right now the message on there is that I would like to ask the gods for the release of my book to go well and for the book to reach the people it needs to reach for it to do so. The two votives are like antennae boosters for the main candle, and the greenery around the main candle kind of does the same thing, like energy buffering.

There are two stacks of cards with nickels on them: this is where more focused prayers happen, and as things occur to me during the week I add them. This becomes a great way to get rid of nagging worries. My version of “let go and let god.” I guess I “let go and ask Tenjin-sama.” I write the request on the card, stick it under the nickel, and try to move forward.

The rocks in the middle are more antenna focusing. I can’t really explain why, but they are—the wire nest around the one is even more complicated, but it has the added benefit of belonging to my late grandmother. The incense is also a focusing aspect, but it’s sort of the fuse of the whole kit and caboodle. I kneel on the cushion below, light the candles, light the incense off the main candle, clap my hands to get Tenjin-sama’s attention, bow, and then I let it go for several hours as I work. It makes me feel good to have it going.

Every Sunday I clean the altar, review the mini cards and discard the ones which have been answered or which I’ve decided I no longer need—eventually I burn these in the fireplace. When I can, I also clean my whole office, or at least pick it up. I love the ritual of all of this, the way it focuses and empowers me. There are so many little things about writing down the things I want and worry about which frees me—who is to say if there is a god answering me or not, and how much does it matter? Even if I’m answering my own prayers, how much more comforting to feel as if I have someone along with me.

I so long to go to Japan, to lose myself in Kyoto at the temples and Shrines. Until then, I will content myself with my own space, the one I made. It’s not nearly as grand, but in its own way, its just as wonderful, because it’s mine.

I hope you have sacred personal spaces like this too. If not—please make one for yourself soon. You won’t regret it. 

About Heidi:
Heidi Cullinan has always enjoyed a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. Proud to be from the first Midwestern state with full marriage equality, Heidi is a vocal advocate for LGBT rights. She writes positive-outcome romances for LGBT characters struggling against insurmountable odds because she believes there’s no such thing as too much happy ever after. When Heidi isn’t writing, she enjoys playing with new recipes, reading romance and manga, playing with her cats, and watching too much anime.

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One response to “Molly Review, Guest Post and Giveaway: Antisocial by Heidi Cullinan

  1. Your sacred space looks reall great! I can barely imagine the hardwork you put through on setting it. But it wouldn’t be called “hardwork”, would it? Some place where you can bare your heart & soul would always be worth the time & effort. ^_^


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