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

A few words about “Butter is Not a Dress”

I don’t write a lot of poetry, and I only share a fraction of what I do write. Every once and a while, I come up with a piece I am very proud of. One of those pieces is featured in this anthology.

When speaking with people, I struggle to express my gender identity and how I’ve always felt like I inhabited some space between man and woman. This poem explores that in the context of how it affects the way I dress, and the internal struggle I go through every time I change my clothing.

You can buy the paper back and kindle version on Amazon if you are interested in reading it along with other poems and stories.

 

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Book Review: Salt

SaltSalt by Hannah Moskowitz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Salt is an odd little book. I love the characters, but the plot and the world-building left me feeling a little cheated.

Indi is an orphan and a monster hunter, sailing with his older sister and two younger siblings, looking for the monster that killed their parents.

He is a well developed character with a lot of conflict and emotion depth. I enjoyed seeing the world through his eyes, courtesy of a first-person, present-tense narration, as he grappled with wanting to take care of his siblings and wanting to be free of them.

The siblings were also well developed. They seemed exactly how I would expect a group of kids who grew up hunting monsters at sea to seem. Their dynamics and banter were entertaining, and no matter how much they fought, they had an immense bond with each other.

The plot — the hunt for the monster and Indi learning his role with his siblings — started out okay but let me down in the end. At first, it was just little things.

The kids were sailing around Europe in an age where everywhere on Earth seems to have issues with undocumented immigrants and refugees, and no one caught or stopped them to ask for papers. Eventually, there was one mention of fake ID’s, and even later, fake passports. After that, maybe there was a mention or two of being undocumented and not wanting countries to know they are there. By the time these issues were minimally addressed, I’d already been pulled out of the story by them a few times. It was really too little too late, and since the book was so short, adding a layer of not being caught only would’ve helped.

How sex, alcohol, and smoking are portrayed in YA is important. I had no problem with the fade to black casual sex, but they could’ve mentioned a condom the first time and not waited until the second. Then there was an instance where Indi and his sister light up cigarettes and smoke. There is no apparent reason for it and it adds nothing to plot. All it seems to do is glorify smoking, which is something a YA book shouldn’t do. Alcohol, while mentioned casually, made sense. Sailors drink. They’re in Europe. They’re drinking sparingly. It’s minor and cultural — its well handled. The end of the book was not.

I love happy endings. I love it when the mc gets everything want and has potential for a happily every after, but those endings have to be earned. This book was working towards that, until the last 80% or 85%. The last sequence of events was too quick, too random, and too easy, so that the happy ending didn’t feel earned or real.

In spite of all that, I did enjoy the book. The prose, voice, physical setting and characters were beautifully written. I just got pulled out of the story a few more times than I would’ve liked, and felt let down by the end.

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Book Review: Roberto to the Dark Tower Came

Roberto to the Dark Tower CameRoberto to the Dark Tower Came by Tom Epperson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Roberto to the Dark Tower Came needs ALL the trigger warnings: Gore, death, torture, sexual assault, rape, cruelty to animals, death of animals, language, whatever you can think of. If that is enough for you to not read it, then you probably don’t need to read the rest of my review.

If your still reading my review, then maybe you will consider picking up this novel. It was disturbing and dark, but I couldn’t make myself stop reading it. I became invested in the characters, and I wanted so bad for them to triumph, but this isn’t that kind of book. It’s the type that juxtaposes flawed characters who want to make a difference with the cruelty of those are resisting. It’s the kind of gritty realism where no one wins.

Roberto to the Dark Tower Came is written in third person present tense that gives an immediacy to the prose as Roberto, a left-wing journalist, receives death threats, makes plans to leave the country, gets pulled into reporting on one last story, and witnesses all manners of atrocities. The narrative builds suspense like a thriller, but it is layered with literary symbolism and imagery.

The most terrifying aspect of it was the realism. The story has a contemporary setting. The little details about daily life ground in it a place that may or probably does exist somewhere. Even though the country the book was set in was never directly named, at least not that I noticed, other real countries were.

It’s one thing to read about a character who witnessed someone get flayed in an epic fantasy like Game of Thrones that is set in a secondary world. It is far more disturbing in a book like this, but also probably more worth reading. Because somewhere in the world, people are living in fear of getting killed for disagreeing with governments or living on land people in power want to exploit. I can tell myself “It’s fiction, don’t let it get to you,” and it almost works with a secondary world fantasy, but with a book like this, my brain responds, “yes, fiction, these people aren’t real, but someone else might be living an equally hellish story.”

This story made me think about more social, political, and humans rights problems than I can count, but ones that stood out to me were the relationship between people and land, between those in power and those indigenous to the land, and how it’s not just things diamonds or gold, but some kind of metal or element used to make everyday things like cell phones, that directs greedy monsters to the places they destroy. How many everyday items that I take for granted are made with materials that were obtained by exploiting land and murdering those who love it?

After reading Roberto to the Dark Tower Came, I appreciate what I have and where I live ten times more than I did before, but it also makes me sick about what my privileges, safety and conveniences have cost someone else. Maybe it will drive me to research things and be more careful about what products I buy. Maybe because this book was so damned disturbing, I’ll lose myself in another story and I try to forget about.

I came away from this novel appreciating how precious my freedom is and terrified the current American leadership could make my world more like Robertos.

Overall, if you want a book that will take you out of your comfort zone, keep you up at night, engage you with a blend of literary realism and a political thriller plot, and make you think a lot, then this is the book for you.

But be warned, this book is loaded with triggers.

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