Book Review: Curved Horizon

Curved Horizon (The Camellia Clock Cycle, #2)Curved Horizon by Taylor Brooke

Since I got an ARC of Curved Horizon on NetGalley, it has kept me warm on some bitter New England nights. As wind gusts across a frozen lake just outside my window, my mind is still in the warmth of Laguna beach and the characters Taylor Brooke brought to life on it’s shores.

I read Curved Horizon slowly, savoring the gorgeous sentences packed with emotions I seldom feel in real life. I drank in the passion and pain the words evoked, the bruised kisses of new love, and imagery that made me crave summer.

Curved Horizon is a book about friends, soulmates and the kind of family you choose for yourself. It may not be the fastest paced, most suspenseful book, but I like it just the way it is. I enjoyed lingering in little moments, watching the characters grow and bloom from both good moments and challenging ones.

There was one big plot event described in the cover copy that came much later in the book than I was expecting, so while I was not forever wondering what was going to happen, I was wondering when it was going to happen, holding my breath, waiting for the weight to drop. And when it finally came, it was flawlessly executed.

I could go on and on about how good this book was, but I’m not going to. Want to know more about Curved Horizon? Pre-order.

Support the author by pre-ordering it, reading it, and leaving a review of your own.

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Replacing Textbooks With novels in First Year Writing

For the past five years, I’ve taught first year writing at community college and state universities. I assigned textbooks and/or trade books based on what other teachers used or what seemed like the kind of book college students should read. It didn’t work out so well. Now, I’m using books I get excited about.

The first books I recall assigning were writing textbooks like Curious Researcher or Axelrod & Cooper’s Concise Guide to Writing. While these contain good information about writing and some useful exercises, they didn’t engage students. Half the students didn’t even bother reading, and the ones who did complained the book wasn’t worth the $50 or $60 they paid for it. 

As I got more experienced, I realized that most of the material in the textbooks could be conveyed through discussions about writing and having students reflect on their own writing and/or other people’s writing.

I stopped making students buy expensive textbooks and started assigning one or two trade books. Additionally, students would read assortment of articles they could access for free online or through the library’s databases. This works well for a lot of teachers.

While I did manage to find a handful or articles and essays that engaged my students, I couldn’t seem to find a book they liked.

The Mind at Work by Mike Rose held their attention for one chapter. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba was a neat concept, but they got bored with the amount of detail in the story. They liked some of the “facts” in Modified by Caitlin Shetterly, but were easily confused and claimed she kept getting “off topic” and wound up hating the book. They claimed Dwellings by Linda Hogan only needed to be a few pages because it repeated the same message over and over again.

The first book I assigned that more than one student seemed to enjoy was Feed by M. T. Anderson—a novel.

It took a while, but I finally figured out what my problem was: I really don’t enjoy reading book length non-fiction. I know it is sometimes necessary, and that a lot can be learned from it, but it always feels like work.

I don’t get excited about it, and that is a huge problem.

Students have very sharp bullshit detectors, so they know when I’m faking it. If I’m not excited about the book, why should they get excited about it?

Feed was the first novel I asked students to read. It also happened to be dystopian, YA, and science fiction – a combination of genres I love.

Because I was so excited about it when I introduced it, they gave it chance. Because they gave it chance, many of them got pulled into the story and enjoyed it. A few loved it. One student told me it made him want to start reading novels again.

Sure there were a few who didn’t like it, but since books are so subjective, that is to be expected. Enough liked it. And enough wrote thoughtful, sourced based papers because of it.

I’ve learned my lesson. Unless the department requires it, I won’t teach a book I am not passionate about. And novel’s can get students thinking just as much as non-fiction, and the questions those novel’s raise can prompt students to do research for essays.

So this semester, I am using novels all around. Comp 1 is reading Feed again and writing a sourced based paper about the issues the novel raises. My reading class is going to read Love, Hate and Other Filters as well as Shadowshaper.

I’m still working out the details of the assignments, but I am confident these books will go over better if I can express my confidence and excitement when introducing them to the students.

I’ll post something later in the semester about how it worked out.

Another Book Review: Shadowshaper

Shadowshaper (Shadowshaper, #1)Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper series has been in my TBR list for a while. I bought it a few weeks ago, but had to work through the ARC’s I had to review before I got to it. I don’t know why I waited so long to read this. It is amazing, and I am going to try really hard pinpoint what I loved about it without just saying it was awesome.

At first, the book seemed to play into the classic YA urban fantasy trope of teen finds out they are part of some supernatural world, but this book was so much more than that.

Yes, Sierra Santiago, spunky Puerto Rican protagonist, did get drawn into a supernatural world her family had hid from her, but her personality, and her friends, were enough to make the story unique. Of course, Older didn’t just leave it at that. Sierra has a powerful internal struggle against racism and expectations. While she struggles against terrifying enemies, she also has to learn to love herself for who she is — to embrace her culture and identity.

This is all painted in colorful detail against the backdrop of a diverse, alive, sensual Brooklyn, where gentrification and hipsters are creeping up on old school neighborhoods where old men play dominos in vacant lots.

Hailing from different parts of the Caribbean, the supporting characters, including a lesbian couple, added more flavor to cultural melting pot this story happens in.

Not only did I enjoy this story, but I learned from it. I was reminded of somethings that should be obvious but aren’t always. I’m “white” and sometimes we (me and other white people) stupidly tend lump “people of color” into a few categories, and/or don’t always think about how someone who might be Puerto Rican, like Sierra’s aunt, might be a bigot towards someone who was Haitian and “darker.” It reminded me of how one time, I overheard a Dominican student whisper, “I thought that kid was black, not Dominican” to one of their friends as class was ending.

Books like this one, are so important for so many reasons. They represent a groups neglected in literature, allowing more people to see their people on the page. They are also a way educate people who are culturally illiterate or blinded by whiteness. By saying this last thing, I worry even that I am taking value away from this book by partially making it “for white people.”
I always worry I am going to overstep my place when talking about race and other people’s cultures, but being silent only fuels oppression.

Anyway, culture and race issues aside, this is an awesome book. The plot, while a little formulaic, engaged me, the magic concept was unique and the characters were deep. So if you like YA urban fantasy, books like Mortal Instruments, Chronicles of Nick, and Tithe, read this book, because it is even better than those.

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Book Review: Seven-Sided Spy

Seven-Sided SpySeven-Sided Spy by Hannah Carmack

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a copy of Seven-Sided Spy from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review and was pleasantly surprised to find it’s science fiction element was a more prominent part of the story than I initially expected.

When I read the cover copy about once attractive spies deformed and on the run from the KGB, I thought normal scarring, not superhuman abilities and blue skin. The later is much more exciting, at least in my mind.

Yes, it has speculative elements, but Seven Sided Spy is also firmly grounded in reality and history. The slang, cars and clothing really ground me in the time period. The deep character development grounds me in humanity.

I loved how the characters’ past, present and future were all woven through the novel, but felt that at one point, having characters tell each other stories as a way to do that was used a little too much. It worked, though, because a lot of the “present” narrative was the characters stuck in the woods, trying to figure out when or if it would ever be safe to leave.

I honestly was not sure how this was going to end. I had a clear idea of how I wanted it to end, but my ideal ending would not have been the best for the stories true hero, so when I got to the end, the one I didn’t quite expect, it left me a little sad. It almost made me cry. However, it was also happy for at least for one characters. And it worked. I’m just a baby when it comes to endings.

While I am sure there are comparable novels like this one out there, I have not read once recently enough to make comparison. However, if you have ever wanted something like a darker, more grounded, queer Agent Carter, or if you just like spy novels with deep characters and a slight speculative element, then read Seven-Sided Spy.

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Book Review: Smoke City

Smoke CitySmoke City by Keith Rosson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I got a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. And I’ll admit, after the first couple chapters, I didn’t think I’d be giving it five stars, but I read on, and was won over the by the characters, subtle magic and tightly woven plots.

The end to this book left me feeling pretty good — in fact, this one was one the rare occasions where the book ended almost exactly how I hoped it would. Something that started our grimy and depressing had a surprisingly happy ending.

But enough about the ending.

It took me a little while to engage with this. The protagonists were two middle aged men who were more or less a wreck, way more of a wreck than I am now, but as I read and thought about how they were the kind of wreck I could be if I wasn’t careful, I found common ground with the characters.

Meanwhile, the gritty, grimy realism was being seasoned with the paranormal. I was intrigued by the smokes and specters and the snippets of Marvin’s past lives. There were lots of threads in this novel, but they were also tightly knit together.

It’s a hard novel to describe ( if you want a better idea of the premise, read the back cover copy that comes with book). However, if I had to compare it to other books, I’d say it’s a strange blend of Breakfast of Champions, Cloud Atlas and American Gods.

It may have a slow build, but Smoke City is worth it in the end.

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Beta Readers & Remembering my Characters are NOT me.

Good beta readers and critique partners are essential for writers, not just because they make individual manuscripts stronger, but also because they can make writers aware of problematic patterns.

My beta readers often comment that my characters don’t react or show emotion to big things – like finding out demons exits, losing a loved one, seeing someone get shot, or having some slightly mundane but life changing news delivered.

Despite the validity of these comments, I often get very defensive about them. It’s not that my characters don’t feel or show emotion; they just don’t do it right away.

There is a reason I write them like that.

I almost never have instant reactions to things unless that reaction is rage or something completely irrational.

I may have immediately dissolved into screaming and swearing that one time there were cars on a hiking (I may have had a staring contest with the car)but when my grandmother died, and when I got offer a contract for my book, I just kind of stared and went through the motions before I truly reacted.

When big things happen, I don’t react to them right away. I go blank and stare until my brain figures out how it wants to react, considers how people expect me to react and finds a compromise between the two. Therefore, in my first drafts, my characters seldom react the way readers expect.

I need to stop mentally fighting readers about this.

My characters are not me.

Maybe if I am writing a character that has the same not completely diagnosed flavor of mental illness that I have, the readers would have to deal with it. However, if I am writing a neurotypical character and/or one that is mentally healthy, then they need to react like one of those people would.

Without beta readers, it would be almost impossible for me to see this. Even with them, it has taken me far to long to figure it out. Even being aware of it, I’m sure it will still happen in all my first drafts, but I am going to work harder to catch it early revisions so that my readers can focus on other things.


IWSG December Post: Writers Remorse ?

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeDecember 6 question – As you look back on 2017, with all its successes/failures, if you could backtrack, what would you do differently?

There isn’t much I would do differently. To be honest, 2017 was filled with more success than failures. Sure, I got about 120 rejections for one of my novels, but in the end, I landed a contract with a great publisher.

If anything, I wish I had gotten brave enough to share my queries in Absolute Write’s query letter hell forum sooner, and had been a little more careful about proof reading some of my queries and samples. I do worry that the 20 or so queries I sent out for one of my projects, Like Birds Under the  City Sky, were a waste because the project is currently shelved until I get into the right mindset to make the necessary revisions. Of course, there is a bright side to this. The editor who sent the R & R requesting the revision works for the publisher I signed Power Surge with.

My only other biggish regret has to do with the Publishizer crowd publishing campaign that I botched this summer and that wasn’t a total waste becuase it got me to complete manuscript #4, Earth Reclaimed, which one of my old friends who doubles as a CP claims is one of the best things I’ve written so far. Of course, the sample chapter shared in the publishizer page was an info dump filled with forced dialogue. I’ve composted and rewritten it several times now, and it is much better. I’m not sure if I will ever try crowd publishing again since I am not very social, but if I do, it will be with a complete and polished ms, not a WIP.

As far as writing goes, 2017 was a good year. However, if were to go into politics, identity, and mental health issues, well, then I would be telling a different story, but I doubt any of you want to hear about all the tiny little regrets I have about awkward things I said in conversations or snarky comments I shouldn’t have made on student papers.

The most important thing to do now is to learn from my mistakes and keep moving forward.

Book Review: Run in the Blood

Run in the BloodRun in the Blood by A.E. Ross

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Run in the Blood is like a breath of crisp, salty air proving you can have sword and sorcery fantasy set in a medieval-ish world without loading it up with sexism and misogyny. And you know what makes this book even better? Quite a bit of the rainbow was represented in a positive light with no one picking on them for being themselves.

I received a free copy from NineStar Press in exchange for a fair and honest review. I want to give it ALL THE STARS.

It had dragons AND pirates!

I was hooked from the first page watching in close third person as Aela engaged in a classic pirate battle and after a sweeping victory, was sold out to a king of a cold, snowy mountain nation.

Instead of forcing the reader to keep track of way too many characters, Ross alternated between three whose actions were closely intertwined, making the plot easy to follow and allowing me bond with and root for all three of them without being a strung along by some other random person’s story.

While a little predictable, the plot was full of fun twists and turns, all narrated by three very distinct voices, though my favorite is definitely Aela’s. The descriptions were detailed but not overdone, and little details, butter tea and spear guns, really brought the world to life.

The end wrapped up the plot’s important threads, but I really really hope there is a sequel because this book was so fun to read.

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Book Review: The Girl in the Tower

The Girl in the Tower (The Winternight Trilogy #2)The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A slow start, an epic middle and a bittersweet end describe The Girl in the Tower.

When I read the first book in the Winternight Trilogy last year, I hadn’t realized it was a series, but enjoyed it enough to request a copy when I realized there was a book 2, and it was on NetGalley.

The opening was loaded with gorgeous prose and historical detail, but it was a long time before I got to read a chapter from the hero’s (Vasya’s) point of view. However, once she showed up in the book, she swept me away like wind from a wild winter storm and hardly let me put the book down an end that almost made me cry.

While the historic setting was detailed and well researched, it was also incredibly frustrating. I wanted to punch almost every male in the story at one point or another for being misogynistic jerks. The difference is the way Vasya was treated when people thought she was a boy versus new she was a girl really captured the sexism of the time period. However, since this book was also laden with magic and folklore, I kept waiting and hoping for that historically accurate sexism to be subverted.

I liked that Vasya put on her pants in the wild woods long before she re-entered human society. It made her character and identity feel more genuine. However, my problem with female characters that “cross-dress” or “pretend” to be boys when live in a society like this makes wonder if they do that because their culture’s view of women is oppressive, or if it is simply because of who they are. If Vasya lived today, would she still want to play the role of a man? Or would she be content a woman?

I’m always looking for books with human characters that subvert gender binaries, but historical fiction can blur or even invalidate that because it is so hard to tell how much of the character’s desire to cross-dress is internal and how much is external.

Either way, I still love how wild and determined Vasya is, curse her when she makes bad decisions, and root for her to in. I can’t see how she can find peace and be alive in the world she lives in, but now that I know it is a trilogy, I am okay with the way things ended in this book, but I do not expect any kind of happy ending where she survives the end of the trilogy.

If you are looking for a darker fairytale or historic fantasy, then you will enjoy this, but don’t pick it up if you want a disney-worthy happily ever after.

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A Review: Gender Identity in Queen of All Crows

The Queen of All Crows (The Map of Unknown Things, #1)The Queen of All Crows by Rod Duncan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Queen of All Crows

When my request Queen of All Crows was approved on NetGalley, I was thrilled to hear that the wait to see what happened with Elizabeth Barnabus and John Farthing would be over. However, my experience reading the newest story in the world of the Gas-Lit Empire was a little different than it was last year. It is impossible to review without touching on how gender is portrayed in it.

Now, I’m more open about my gender identity, and am more engaged in conversations about gender and sexuality. Even though Elizabeth is referred to as “she/he” I’ve always thought “they/them” would be better suited as far as pronouns go. Barnabus was one of the first characters whose gender identity seemed to come close to mine — not really man or woman, but something fluid and in between.

Yes, pretending to be a young man was labeled as a disguise, but to me, it always seemed like it was more part of Barbabus’ identity than a disguise, and I think part of why my review is four-stars, not five, was because of the phrase “disguise herself as a man” being present in the back cover copy and the manly appearance being referred to as a disguise in general. Narratives where a character presents a different gender just for an external purpose sometimes make non-binary and fluid identities less valid. However, the saving grace in this series is that Elizabeth’s “disguise” is so much more than a disguise. And in Queen of All Crows, it becomes even clearer that not even Elizabeth truely understands their own identity.

I read slower than normal, rereading every sentence that hinted at Barnabus’ true gender identity. Some lines made me angry by placing Barnabus’ in a binary, but then there were twice as many that proved my theory that whether the author intended it or not, Barnabus was genderfluid.

The role gender played in this book went far beyond one character’s identity. I could write a twenty page paper analyzing gender in this book. Much of the plot was driven by power and perceptions of power: power over technology and weapons, but more importantly, the balance of power between men, women and those who are both or neither.

As anyone who has read the other books knows, the Gas-Lit empire, is not a place women have much power or agency. However, in Queen of All Crows Barnabus travels to an island made up of all women, which unfortunately, fell into the trope of a complete reversal — women enslaving men, and claiming they are better than them when they are really no different. I was a bit annoyed at this, but even here, the characters did not lack depth, and this little bubble of reversal did seem necessary to the larger plot at work throughout the serie. Since the characters were varied and not all raging idiots, and the description and integration into the world was so well done, I was able to forgive this.

The book did not have too many other flaws. The opening was slow, but once the plot picked up it was difficult to put the book down. The descriptions were detailed and gorgeous. The emotions and tensions high. The characters were tested and changed. The role of power and technology really got me thinking, and at times, I had to stop mentally debate ideas before diving back in. It has all the makings of a classic read that will endure for centuries.

Yes, there are some flaws, but every book has flaws, and this ones just make it more revealing in so many ways. I highly recommend it, but also reccomend you read Custodian of Marvels trilogy first.

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