Novella Review: The Lost Sisters

The Lost SistersThe Lost Sisters by Holly Black

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up because I love Holly Black’s faerie stories, I was sick, too tired of looking at a screen to write more, but not willing to get lost in a novel that would take me away from my words for too long.

I liked how it was written to the sister, how the “stories” were interspersed with the narrative, and enjoyed being back in the realm of the fair folk.

However, it almost felt like a summary of Cruel Prince from Taryn’s point of view as opposed to the love/horror story apology I wanted it to be.

Every time Taryn spoke of jealousy, I felt a little of it. Not for a lover, but for the ability to be able to have enough of a fan base to write and sell a companion novella like this, one wholly dependent on readers knowing what happened in book 1 and already knowing and loving the world.

Now that I’ve admitted my jealousy to the internet, I’ll put it aside and go to sleep.

Tomorrow, I’ll get up and I go to work at my paying job and I’ll write on my breaks and at night when I should be sleeping. I’ll focus on the little step I won and keep writing for another.

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Power Surge & Trigger Warnings

PowerSurge-f500Power Surge’s road to publication has been long and bumpy, but as it gets closer and closer to publication date, I want to take a minute to discuss the age category, trigger warnings, and mature content.

I’ve rarely thought of Power Surge as anything other than Young Adult (YA). However, you may notice it listed on Amazon as New Adult (NA), and on my publisher’s website, it is tagged as both YA and NA.

My publisher has reasons for labeling it so, but to me, this book is YA. The main character is a 17-year-old high school senior who is still trying to figure out who they are and dealing with very teenage issues.

However, my editor feels the themes were more suitable for a NA audience. While I agree this might be too mature for many 12 or 13-year-olds I think a 16-year-old would be fine. Depending on their life situation, it might be the kind of book that helps them get through a dark time or even empowers them.

If you are a parent, educator, or anyone thinking of recommending this book to teens and want to know more about content warnings and why the book is tagged as both NA and YA, here are some explanations. But be warned, they do contain spoilers.

These are the warnings listed in the book: Depictions of violence, discussion of off-page abuse, death of a parent, mentions of off-page sexual assault, brief on-page depictions of attempted sexual assault, self-harm, suicide ideation, and bullying.

What follows is an explanation  of why they are there and how they relate to the age category.

SPOILERS AHEAD

SPOILERS AHEAD

SPOILERS AHEAD

 

 

 

Content Warnings + Rational:

Violence: This is a book about demon hunters, so as you might expect, the main character, Erin, violently fights and banishes demons. There are four violent fight scenes in the book. There are two sparring matches.

Erin thinks violent thoughts about people, but they rarely act on those feelings. For example, Erin knows their love interest, José, is abused by his father. When Erin sees José’s father, they think about specific ways they want to hurt him.

There are many YA books with much larger amounts of violence, and perhaps some middle grade books that are on par with it. Erin may rage and think about hurting people all the time, but most of their physical fights are not against other humans. In fact, Erin is often aware of how wrong some of their violent thoughts are. The book sends a clear message that it is not okay to hurt other people.

Discussion of off-page abuse: As I mentioned above, José’s father is physically and verbally abusive. The physical abuse is not shown on the page, but the bruises it yields are.

As much as Erin hates José’s dad for being an abuser, Erin is terrified that they are going to be abusive to José. More about that in the next section.

Mentions of off-page sexual assault: This is one of warnings that makes me hesitate to give this book to a 12 or 13 year-old. Some junior high students would be okay reading this, but others would not.

Through internal thought and dialogue, readers learn that when Erin was 16, their boyfriend tried (and ultimately failed) to rape them. Erin retailed by trying to murder him.

More specifically, Erin tells José about the following event:

Erin and their now ex-boyfriend Ricky were kissing on a beach. He wanted to touch them places they said he couldn’t touch. He touched them anyway. Erin punched him in the face. He forcefully removed some of Erin’s clothing. They fought physically. Erin nearly beat him to death.

The above scene isn’t shown on page, rather relayed through dialogue and some internal monologue.

It does haunt Erin through out the book. It makes it harder for Erin to trust people. It’s one of the reasons Erin thinks of themself as a monster. Yes, Ricky did something bad and tried to do something horrendous, but Erin feels that while subduing him, even leaving him unconscious was justifiable, murder would not have been.

When José and Erin make out, Erin thinks of the incident with Ricky. Anxiety and rage mix. Erin says no physically (i.e. shoving José across a room) instead of just telling him to stop, and they hate themself for it. Hence what I said above about Erin thinking they are an abuser.

Brief on page depictions of attempted sexual assault: A demon that feeds off of human energy, sometimes by sex or touch, tries to grope Erin. Later, that same demon pins another character to a wall with the implied intent of sexual assault, but Erin stops it.

There is a scene where José appears to be trying to pressure Erin to have sex with him, but later, it is revealed to have been an act they both agreed to in order to make their enemy think Erin was alone, angry, and vulnerable. Erin was using themself as bait to lure a demon into a trap.

Self-harm: Erin has some mental health problems, particularly depression and anxiety. Like me, Erin’s anxiety often turns into rage. When Erin can’t contain it and is afraid they will harm someone else, they harm themselves. Erin views it as an addiction they need to quite. They know it’s a bad coping mechanism, but they’re human (somewhat human, anyway) and make mistakes. The self-harm happens several times in the book, but it is clearly portrayed as a problem that they haven’t yet found a solution to.

Suicide ideation: There are a few instances where Erin thinks about a past suicide attempt and/or that they would be better off dead. These thoughts are fleeting.

Bullying: Jenny Dunn, José’s ex, is on a jealousy-motivated mission to make Erin miserable whether it is by using inaccurate slurs, dumping food on Erin’s head, or ganging up on them in a locker room.

Death of a parent: José’s father dies.

Despite these warnings, I believe that Power Surge is YA.

There are plenty of other books labeled YA that are as mature, if not more mature, than Power Surge. For example, Mindy McGinnis’s Female of the Species  is YA and it explores rape culture and violence. Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series is YA, but it is exponentially more violent and has more sexual content.

As far as mature content goes, Power Surge is probably close to Holly Black’s The Curse Workers  and The Folk of Air series.

More importantly, I think this book is appropriate because some of the issues that make it dark are also things that make real life dark. There are teens get angry, and violent, just like there are teens who get depressed, bullied, and sexually assaulted.

Sexual Assault is all over the media these days with accounts of victims coming forward after years of staying silent and with people resisting the rape culture that kept them silent.

Power Surge is relevant, perhaps more so now than it was over a decade ago when I started writing it.

If I haven’t ruined the book for you, pre-order Power Surge on

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2xLPxjy

NineStar Press.com: https://ninestarpress.com/product/power-surge/

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/897512

 

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A Brief Review of Undertow

Undertow (Port Lewis Witches, #2)Undertow by Brooklyn Ray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received an advanced release copy of this from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Undertow, the second installment in the Port Lewis Witches Series, was as beautifully written as the first book, however, I didn’t love it as much as I loved Darkling. The prose and plot and were great. However, I didn’t connect with Liam as much as I did Ryder. It’s not fault of the writers — Ryder and Liam are just different people, and Ryder was the one I engaged with more.

On with the review.

If you’ve read Darkling, than expect the same lyrical writing filled with lush imagery and stormy emotion.

The plot is the good kind of slow. It’s followed a clear path and while I was on it, I had an idea of where it might be going, but I wasn’t really sure until I saw it all play out. It definitely added depth to Liam’s character, closed one chapter of his relationship with Ryder and began a new one.

Zooming out to the bigger picture, I am more fascinated by the circle now than I was with the last book. I love seeing how they grapple with their friendship. They’re young but not children; they’re testing their power and their responsibilities figuring their place in the universe, and they still have a lot figuring to do.

I’m looking forward to the next installment.

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Novella Review: Darkling


Darkling by Brooklyn Ray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Today I wanted to read something a little longer than a short story, but I didn’t want to commit to a novel because I needed to get some writing done. I had an ARC courtesy of the author, so I could read and review the sequel, Undertow.

I enjoyed the writing in this book, how beautifully emotion was conveyed, and how Ray handled having a trans main character.

I loved that Ray didn’t make the book about the mc’s gender — it was a magic, witchy romance where the lead happened to be trans. The character’s identity was present enough for the reader know he was trans, to see how it shaped his view of the world and relationships, but it didn’t take over the plot. As a non-binary person, this is the kind of representation I seek out, even if it isn’t exactly my identity on the page.

I almost didn’t read this book because it was labeled as having explicit sex and as erotic romance, and lately, I just haven’t felt like reading books with a lot of sex. I’m glad I picked this one up anyway. There were three, maybe four scenes of explicit sex, but they weren’t gratuitous. They were so tied into the characters’ growth and development that they felt necessary and this particular story wouldn’t have been the same without them.

I do have to say, while the elemental magic was pretty awesome, my favorite piece of the magic system was the trees.

I’m looking forward to reading Undertow!

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Book Review: Given To the Earth by Mindy McGinnis

Given To the Earth (Given Duet, #2)Given To the Earth by Mindy McGinnis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Given to the Earth is a continuation of the events in Given to the Earth. I’ll refrain from describing the plot in this review because I’m not sure I can do so without spoilers or copying too much for the blurb.

On the sentence level, the writing was lovely. I never had trouble picturing anything, and felt every time the writer stopped to describe something in detail, it was relevant and layered with meaning. However, that wasn’t enough for me to be drawn in the book like I expected to be.

As much as I loved the cast of the Given Duet, I had a hard time getting into Given to the Earth. I wanted to spend more time with the characters and to find out what happened to them, but the short chapters quickly jumping from one character to the next made it hard for to settle into a rhythm and engage with the story.

I also found I had a hard time keeping track of who was narrating when and found myself flipping back to the beginning of chapters (at least with the first half of the book) to remind myself who was narrating. I always knew when Khosa or Dara was narrating, but there were a few instances where I thought I was reading Vincent but after a couple paragraphs, realized it was Donil when he said Vincent’s name or thought about his sister, Dara.

However, when I was a little over half-way through the book, that problem stopped. I found the rhythm of each characters voice and the rapid fire switching from one narrator to the next became a good thing because I wanted to know how everyone’s narratives fit together and how a string of good and bad decisions were going to play out in the end. I was engaged with the narrative that couldn’t fall asleep and got up to finish the book.

As I got closer to the end, I realized that this book was doing something that I love and hate: showing how dozens of decisions each characters make turn into mistakes because of their timing and a lack of communication, bring the characters so close to what could’ve been a peaceful or happy ending (for most of them) only to have it completely turned over by one thing that they overlooked.

There were a few surprises along the way, mostly, the narrative ended exactly how I knew it would and hoped it wouldn’t. It became too familiar. There were a few moments where I was thinking things like “ok I guess ___ had to ___ in order for ___ and ___ to have a happy ending” but after a good night’s sleep and reflection on how this compared to the book I read before it, I realized it didn’t have to end that way. The author could’ve broken the trope and come up with a more creative ending were more people live happily with each other. I know this is vague, but being any more specific would mean spoilers, which I don’t want to include.

Given to the Earth may not be the best sequel I’ve ever read, but if you read Given to the Sea and enjoyed it, this is still worth reading. It’s well written and well paced once you get into the rhythm of the narrators and their voices. And if you’re okay with teary traditional endings to fantasy novels with almost Arthurian love triangles, them maybe you won’t have the same problem with this that I did.

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Book Review: ECHO Campaign

ECHO Campaign (The Isolation Series #2)ECHO Campaign by Taylor Brooke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

ECHO Campaign is the second installment in the Isolation Series. A twisty plot, beautiful prose, and a ton of tension made this book fly by.

In the first book, Omen Operation, the characters were on the run. In Echo Campaign, they’re caught, adapting to life in and plotting to get out of a secret training facility. I felt like I was trapped in the facility with characters, but no matter how things got for the characters, even in the darkest pages of this book, there was beauty lurking in the heartbreak and shadows.

Every character is oozing with emotion. Every interaction was loaded with tension.

I am usually good a predicting plots and twists, but I kept finding myself surprised thinking, “I didn’t see that coming.”

Aside from explosive rage, I have little in common with these characters. For example: I kept thinking things like “how can people touch each other so much? Does anyone have that much sex?” I didn’t see myself much in this book, but I’m kind of an anomaly anyways. I seldom relate to characters in books. I still enjoy them. If I’m reading a well written book like this, it doesn’t matter if I see myself in the characters or not. The writing transports me into their mind. The details connect me to the characters and make me root for them.

The one flaw that jumped out at me was the size of the cast. I kept mixing up who some of the characters were. Brooklyn and Gabriel were always clear. While Porter and Dawson had different backgrounds, sometimes I’d forget which name belonged to which backstore though I remembered quick enough after a sentence or two with a name in it. The other omens blurred together when I read. Maybe they wouldn’t have if I had read slower.

There was too much suspense to read slower.

Haven’t read Omen Operation yet? Make sure you do before diving into ECHO Campaign!

Book Review: Ignite the Stars

I received a copy Ignite the Stars from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This one is longer than some of my other reviews, but this book, with its strengths and flaws, is important and needs more words.

When I looked at the other reviews on Goodreads, one of the first ones quoted someone saying “Think Throne of Glass in Space,” but that reviewer didn’t see it as a positive comp.  I enjoyed Throne of Glass, and I can see the parallels: violent teenage assassin is “forced” to work for the enemy, but I think Poison Study would be a better comp. Ignite the Stars  has more in common with Poison Study’s slow build and quiet depth than with the fast paced cycle training, gowns, and violence that was Throne of Glass.

Despite a few flaws, I’m giving this book five stars.

Ia Cocha, an allegedly feared outlaw, is captured in the first chapter, and everyone is shocked she is a teenage girl. I didn’t get why Ia’s gender was a big deal, especially in a future world were men and women seemed to stand on almost equal footing. And as a frequent reader of YA fantasy where almost every badass is a 17-year-old girl, I really couldn’t suspend disbelief and believe it surprised people.

Gender thing aside, the opening still wasn’t my favorite. The writer tried, but even with Ia hiding out on a ship full of refugees, I wasn’t invested. I almost thought she was just taking advantages of the “refs” though I think the author wanted me to believe her intentions were good.

The first three chapters, each from a  different character’s point of view, were slow in their own way, painting characters as tropes more than individuals: teen assassin who may or  may not have a heart, inteligent minority girl pretending to be average, and damaged flyboy son of a general doing everything but what his father wants.

Thankfully, the characters grew out of their tropes as the story builds. Ia studies in the Starfleet academy and starts to see her enemies as people, even friends. The reader gets to see behind her violent, arrogant facade. Brinn lets the reader through her tightly held mask, and Knives’ past and family history wasn’t as cliche as I expected. It was almost like the narration started distant, but as the characters started to open up to each other, the narration got closer and the characters also opened up to the reader.

When the book picked up, it wasn’t because the action picked up but because I got to know the characters better. Most of the story happens in the flight academy, and is more about the characters than space battles and fist fights.

Readers have to wait until the last 20% or so of the book for the big battles, but they are definitely worth the wait. The plot-twist’s reveal is well set up and worth the wait too, though there were a few missing pieces that made it hard to believe the new enemy’s motive. I can’t comment more on this without spoilers.

To me, the most important aspect of this book wasn’t necessarily how well executed the plot of characters were, but how on top of everything else, it delves into social justice with a timely exploration of colonialism, refugees, and prejudice.

Throughout most of the book, Brinn died her hair to hide the fact that her mother was Tawney, a group of displaced people who were hated by those in the places they tried to settle. Sometimes, I felt like I was being told too much about Brinn’s efforts to fit in and wanted to see them in action a little more, but the overt, heavy handed telling did ensure that I got the point.

The political events around the refugee issues maybe have been in the background, but they were loud, and later, revealed to be more significant to the plot than I originally expected.

At times, I felt like I was being shouted at. The book was saying “this is what happens when people are prejudice, this is what happens when governments colonize, this is what it feels like to be the victim of it.” I got a little annoyed at times, but I think that was a sign it was working. Because in the real world, there are refugees displaced by wars that are the product of foreign intervention. There are people blinded by privilege (sometimes completely unaware of their privilege) who hate those refugees and want them gone. Sometimes, people like me, crappy allies at best, silently complicit at worst, forget that even if we make a few social media posts speaking out against the hate, but don’t get off our butts and do something, we are part of the problem. We’re part of a system that oppresses.

My annoyance wasn’t because the message was too heavy handed or poorly executed. It was because it reminded me of my own guilt.

When this book comes out, buy it and read it. Pre-order it now so you don’t forget. Good science fiction doesn’t explore technological advances and outer space. It examines social issues and how they evolve in the future. Ignite the Stars is good science fiction.

Book Review: Omen Operation

There is a lot to love about Omen Operation, and a few little things that bugged me.

The plot was exciting — a group of young adults (main character is about 19) break out of a secret camp where they were training to fight back against a viral outbreak / apocalypse that never happened.  On the run, the group learns who was really training them and why. While that is all going on, their feelings for each other get messy and tangled.

I enjoyed the pacing — burst of action interspersed between lulls of character development and making out. It kept me turning the page while leaving plenty of time to get to know the characters.

There was a good sized cast. The main character was strong and and angry and beautifully flawed — just the kind of person I wanted to root for through the book. The other characters were similar with their own quirks, but I had a hard time keeping track of all of them at some points in the book, which surprised me because the pacing was steady, not rushed. Even though there were definitely a few moments where I mixed a couple of the side characters, it didn’t detract too much from the overall experience.

This may seem like a small thing, but what bothered me most about those book was the idea of vaccines being used to infect people with a “virus.” Getting into too much detail about what happened in the book will spoil it, so I’ll refrain from summarizing it. However, I get antsy about anything (fiction included) that might add fuel to the anti-vaxxer movement.

Brooke’s prose were gorgeous as always, and they manage to convey more emotion in one page than I could express in a year. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating about my lack of emotional whatever. But the point is they are a master at writing raw, angsty emotions onto the page.

Combine that emotion with some action, tangible tension, and a cliff hanger, and you get a reader who can’t wait to pick up the next book. 

Click the image to find Open Operation on Amazon, or click here to preview the kindle version.

Book Review: Ruin of Stars

Ruin of Stars (Mask of Shadows, #2)Ruin of Stars by Linsey Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a free electronic copy of Ruin of Stars, the sequel to Mask of Shadows, in exchange for an honest review.

Mask of Shadows was good, but Ruin of Stars is still ten times better.

The plot in Ruin of Stars was complex and nuanced. It didn’t follow a trope like it’s predecessor; it was more completely driven by the characters wants and what got in their way.

Sal’s drive for revenge has aligned with the needs of the queen, so Sal is sent out to kill the rest of the people on their list. In the process, Sal encounters betrayals, loses someone they care about, and discovers something that changes their world. Being any more specific than this will give too much away and ruin the book. Reading through it was like untangling a tight not — difficult at times, but so satisfying when it was done.

As I read, my understanding of my favorite characters grew deeper and more complex. They had me rooting for them, hating them, and crying for them, sometimes all at once.

The prose were well crafted and lyrical, making the feelings and emotions of these characters so clear I could almost feel themself. I always appreciate writers who can do this because it is one of the things I struggle with most when it comes to my own writing.

More detail was giving to the politics of the world in this book than in Mask of Shadows. That helped me understand some of the hatred and the motives for it that motivated several characters, including Sal. Erland culture was definitely explored in more detail, including not so subtle descriptions about appearance and ideology that made me think of the Erland lords as Nazi-inspired.

All the descriptions of being gender fluid and of how it felt when society doesn’t acknowledge that rang true to me. Like Sal, I’m “fluid” and “in-between.” At times, I felt the explanations of Sal’s gender identity and of other characters’ gender identities and sexualities to be a little too heavy handed. At some points, the description of it seemed to overpower other aspects of the story, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I may have been reading thinking “obviously, that is a valid identity,” but I forget that there are probably ten times as many readers who know very little about not really being a man or a woman, but something in between. In my own work, critique partners and beta readers have said I don’t explain it enough, so what seems like too much for me may not be for the readers who need to read and learn from this book.

For once, I was actually surprised by the ending. Just when I thought I knew exactly how it would turn out, something changed, and I think the epilogue was best part. But I won’t spoil it — so pre-order the book, and read it as soon as you can.

Haven’t read Mask of Shadows yet? Check out my review of it here.

 

Book Review: Our Dark Stars by  Audrey Grey and Krystal Wade

Click the image to find Our Dark Stars on Amazon.

I received a copy of “Our Dark Stars by  Audrey Grey and Krystal Wade on NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. A combination of the cover, the pitch “Firefly meets Sleeping Beauty” caught my attention, so I requested the book. I enjoyed reading it, though I don’t think it lived up to being compared to Firefly.

The chapters alternate between Will and Talia’s points of view. Will is captain of a scavenger ship trying to regain his place in the military after letting a rebel ship getaway. Talia is an exiled princess who spend 100 years in a cryo-pod after her family was defeated by rebel mocks. The mocks are androids whose artificial intelligence evolved until they were sentient, human-like beings.

As Will decides what to do with Talia and she comes to realize that the roles of humans and mocks have reversed in the past 100 years, the book did raise some interesting questions about AI and ethics, contributing to a conversation science fiction novels have engaged in for decades. While I enjoyed that aspect of the book, I was a little let down by plot and character.

Talia was too much of a cliche modern princess — arrogant and tough. Will was also a stereotype captain who didn’t quite have the same vibrant personality as someone like Mal or Han Solo or Peter Quill. His crew was interesting, though I wished the narrative had focused on them a little more. At first, the two main characters seemed to much like science fiction archetypes, but they did grow on me as the book went on.

The plot, while not bad, was also a let down. After two or three chapters, I knew exactly how it was going to play out. There were a few things that seemed like they were meant to be surprises, but set up made them way too obvious.

The ending was exactly what I expected, though it came a little too easy so I was pulled out of the narrative wishing Talia had to work a little harder in that last chapter.

Despite its flaws, I did enjoy reading it, and like always, as a writer, I learned from reading and reviewing it. Finding the right balance between making twists too obvious or too shocking is tough. This book is a good example of leaning a little too much to the obvious. It is also a warning of the dangers of comparing a story to something it won’t quite live up to.

Had it been advertised as “Sleeping Beauty in Space with Salvagers Instead of Dwarfs” I might not have been so critical of the cast.

Check out a preview of Our Dark Stars here.

https://read.amazon.com/kp/card?asin=B0795VWGDC&preview=inline&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_Lz4pBbWXRSF96&tag=shatteredsmoo-20