Book Review: City of Ghosts

For the next couple of weeks, while I try to finish my own middle grade novel, I’m going to be on a paranormal middle grade reading spree. City of Ghosts is the second title I’ve read since I started and it was so much better than the first book I read off my middle grade list.

City of Ghosts had everything I look for in a book while still being accessible for younger readers. I think had I picked this up when I was twelve, I would’ve happily read the whole thing.

As far as characters go, Cass and Jacob won me over right away. I loved their friendship, how Cass was charging into danger while Jacob was warning her away. I loved his comic book obsession. I loved the tension created by introducing Lara to the  mix. The only issue I had with the characters was that I kept thinking they were a few years older than they actually were. I kept thinking Cass was fourteen or fifteen, not twelve.

A few times, the narrator broke the third wall and started talking like she was reflecting back on events. I’m thinking maybe part of why I kept thinking the character was older was because the narrative voice was supposed to be older than the character. I’m not a huge fan of narrators breaking the third wall to say “If I’d known…” but there was so much else to love about the book that I can deal with it.

On the surface, on the sentence level, this book was a work of art. Schawb wrote sentences that were beautiful while still keeping them accessible for a younger reader. She didn’t dumb the language down like some middle grade authors, but didn’t make it overly complicated or wordy like some adult authors do.

I was able to picture every little detail of the city without getting bored or bogged down. The description of the setting and its history made me want to go and visit Edinburgh.

The involvement of Cass’ parent’s was a nice touch. They were entertaining and they actually cared about her. At times, they helped the reader better understand Cass. At other times, they created more tension.

I’m really looking forward to the sequel, and might buy my ten-year-old cousin a copy of City of Ghosts for her birthday.

Book Review: Cthulhu Blues

I finally got around to reading Cthulhu Blues, the third installment in the Spectra Files trilogy.

It was refreshing to read a book set New England. Many of the books I’ve read lately have either been set on the West Coast or in the rural midwest. While I do enjoy reading about places I’ve never been, especially in the Pacific Northwest, I also like to see my corner of the US represented in novels.

Another thing I like about Cthulhu Blues is the mental health representation. Becca’s depression always seems well described, and I appreciate how the narrative doesn’t shy away from talking about how Becca’s meds and therapy help her. This is something I rarely see in speculative fiction.

Becca’s love for photography, cargo pants, and her dog is another thing that allows me to connect with her. Django is a faithful, intelligent four-legged sidekick, is the only character in the book that I like more than her. While there were a few times I worried about him, he always makes it through okay.

The other characters are well developed, but Becca and Django are why I read the series.

This series is labeled as horror, but it feels like dark urban fantasy to me. Yes, there are cosmic, tentacles monsters, but they’re not any scarier than beasts one encounters when reading The Dresden Files or The Mortal Instruments.

One thing that annoys me a little is how the narration will start out wide and distant. A chapter will have an omniscient tone in the beginning, then it will zoom into close third one Becca or another character. While it does give the book an interesting tone, it slows things down and keeps me away from my favorite character. Sometimes I’m tempted to do things like this in my own writing. However, when I find myself getting annoyed at it in a book like this, I understand why I shouldn’t start chapters that way.

The end seemed abrupt and left me a little confused. The book really needed one more chapter, or at least an epilogue, to really wrap things up and make it feel complete. I understand not wanting to drag it out, but when ending a series, it is important to really bring everything to a close.

Click here to buy a copy of Cthulhu Blues.

Book Review: Empire of Light

I received a free copy of Empire of Light from the author, Alex Harrow, in exchange for a fair and honest review. Empire of Light was an action packed read that was challenging to review without giving away, but I think I’ve manage to come up with something spoiler free.

There was no shortage of action in this book. There were gun fights, fist fights, explosions, and even some of the steamy scenes were a little violent (because the mc and his love interests were into that). Sometimes in books, big action sequences can get confusing, but I didn’t have any trouble with these. The blocking was clear and well executed. I never lost track of who was who and where everyone was.

The downside to all the action was that it distracted me from the characters. Despite all the excitement, I was at least third of the way into book before I really became invested in the characters. They were so busy fighting, never coming up for air, that it was hard to see past their snark, outer shells, and shooting skills to see what growth they needed and were experiencing.

Once I was half way through the book, I couldn’t put it down. When Damian had lost so much and had his back against the ropes and was forced to rest a little because of the injuries that kept battering his body, then I finally got to know and like him a little more. Despite the ease with which killed people and a high tolerance for gore, he was a complex character who grew and matured throughout the book.

The rest of the cast was fascinating, but because of all the action, I felt like I didn’t get to spend quite enough time with them. A lot of these fascinating side characters die, so I guess not getting too invested in them was a blessing, otherwise I would’ve gotten grumpy at the book right around when I ended up getting more invested in it.

I was a little concerned with how violent some of them were towards people they cared about. It seemed standard for the Shadows to beat each other up when they got mad at each other and snippets of flashback and backstory showed their leader/mother figure beating them up when they made mistakes. However, their almost pirate-like status seems to give permission to this and make it acceptable to readers. I don’t necessarily have a problem with it as sometimes I write characters like this too. It just makes me think about what kind of violence and abuse readers tolerate in certain kinds of settings.

The plot and setting were not quite what I expected, but they were still good. Harrow had described this as a gay Firefly with magic, but I found Empire of Light  had little in common with Firefly. Empire of Light  was more dystopian than space western. Still, the plots, assassination attempts, rescue missions, and the romance were well executed and  nicely built to the end and I could never quite predict what was going to happen next. I just knew that no one was going to give up, and that there would be plenty more explosions.

The city Empire of Light  was set in was fascinating and very much a character in the story, though until a few  hints near the end of the book, I was wondering what was in the world beyond this two sided city, where the food came from, and where things were manufactured because the wealthier people in this story did seem to have new things. Because this world was so interesting, I wanted a few clearer hints about the bigger picture of it.

There was a love triangle in this book. I’m not generally a fan of these because they never end well, but I really didn’t mind this one and it was wrapped in a far less painful way than most other love triangles. I actually kind of liked this one.

This may sound like a lot of criticism for a four star review, but in spite the problems I pointed it out, I really did enjoy Empire of Light  and suspect the sequel (assuming there is one) will be even better.

If you are looking for a dark future with plenty of action, a side of romance, and a glimmer of hope, buy your self a copy of buy your self a copy of Empire of Light  .

Book Review: A Blade So Black

A Blade so Black is my new favorite Wonderland story! Instead of simply regurgitating a version of Lewis Carroll’s tale or taking elements of it and twisting them into something far more gruesome, it’s more of a “what happened way later” type of story blended with what I’ve come to think of as classic YA urban fantasy tropes.

Yes, certain tropes are used a lot in YA urban fantasy, but those tropes are what made me fall in love with YA to begin with. As long as the characters are fresh and the plots mix things up enough, I have no problem with tropes.

In A Blade so Black , the two main  tropes are we get tough 17-year-old girl learning to fight  monsters after nearly getting eaten by one and getting a crush on her supernatural mentor who is way older than any human but the age difference is tolerable because the mentor looks young, and his age is sort of rendered irrelevant anyway because it exceeds anything a human could live to. Like Tithe meets City of Bones, but instead of  demons and faeries, there is a world and beings drawn out of / inspired by Lewis Carroll’s tales.

I loved the balance between showing Alice tough and vulnerable. She was competent fighting monsters, but not so competent that I didn’t feel the need to worry and root for her at times.

When she first saw one of the nightmares, I was thrilled that she didn’t automatically assume she was having some kind of psychotic break. It didn’t take her very long to accept it was real and not a literal nightmare.

At first, the crush on Hatta annoyed me, but then it grew on me as Hatta became more complex of a character.

The plot was less predictable than I thought it was going to be — a couple things actually surprised me.

A Blade so Black wasn’t a “so intense I must read the whole thing in one sitting book” but not every book has to be.  Had half stars been a thing on Amazon and Goodreads, I might have called this 4.5 instead of 5, but they aren’t, so I just rounded up.  Plus, I liked this better than the last two Wonderland adaptations I read. The characters and pacing were much better than Gregory Maguire’s After Alice, and the world was far less disturbing than Christina Henry’s Alice. 

I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Book Review: The Year of the Knife

A few months ago, Meerkat Press had giveaway running: sign up for their newsletter and get a free ebook. I signed up and got a copy of The Year of the Knife  It sat on my kindle for a while, on my growing list of things to read. After a big stretch of reading YA, I finally wanted to read something “adult” again, so I picked up this. I started it just before dinner and finished a little after midnight. I loved the explosive magic, a hard boiled lesbian witch main character, and the fast paced plot with a mostly well set up twist.

The magic system in the book was my favorite kind.It had well established rules, limits and costs, and an almost mathematical set up, but the way the author showed it on paged in a way that didn’t bore me with the technical details of actually showing all the calculations. There would be a sentence or two more focused on what was going through Sully’s head while she did calculations, but the reader didn’t actually see the numbers or symbols.  

Speaking of the main character, Sully, is quite the badass. If you ever read the Dresden Files, picture if Harry Dresden and Karin Murphy were actually one character only more Irish and queer.

Throughout the book, Sully is following a string of murders where victims don’t stay dead. The middle of the book, when Sully is knee deep in zombies and demons, was my favorite part. Sully was strongest when her back was against the ropes and she was grasping for leads. 

The opening wasn’t fantastic, but it did its job. It showed Sully’s strength and battle madness with one serial killer hunt, set something up for the end, and then introduced the case shortly after. 

I was a little disappointed that the one non-binary character, the only character with a they/them pronoun, was in the book for a few pages then died.

There were frequent mentions of the sexism the Sully faced, but it never seemed to affect her much, and just seemed there for the sake of being there.

Most pieces of the twist and the end were well set up for, but a couple things seemed a little too convenient, and one thing I was expecting never happened, even though a few things early on almost promised me it would. Still, there are two more books in the series, so perhaps some of the breadcrumbs left uneaten are just setting up for things yet to come. I’m willing to wait and see.

I really am looking forward to the next installment in this series, which comes out later this year. 

So if you read Year of the Knife now, you won’t have too long to wait!

Book Review: The Winter of the Witch

The worst thing about The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden  is that it means the series is over. I could read another trilogy about Vasya and Morozko even though this book clearly wraps up the conflicts that began in the Bear and the Nightingale.  Now, before I wind up spoiling something, I’ll get on with my review.

The strongest features of The Winter of the Witch are definitely the characters and world building.

I love how Vasya resists the gender roles of her time, how she grows into herself and figures out who she really is. Her persistence, pain, wildness, courage, and dedication are tangible things. I loved struggling and succeeding and navigating a myriad of complicated relationships through her point of view. Morozko was my second favorite character, perhaps made more intriguing by the fact that readers really did not get to see much from his point of view. The others were okay, but every time the narrative shifted to them, I just wanted to get back to Vasya.

I did find myself annoyed at the way the book shifted point of view. This varies from reader to reader, but I prefer to read from one point of view for a whole chapter and get annoyed when scene breaks indicate a switch in point of view. On more than one occasion, I found myself rereading to remind myself which character’s eyes the world was being filtered through.

The world building was fantastic. I was smelling, tasting, touching, seeing, and hearing right along with the characters. And it wasn’t boring or overwhelming. Every detail Arden chose to focus on was relevant and added to the tone or mood of the scene. I loved that the magic system and creatures were based off of actual myths, and that some of the characters were named after people who actually existed and fought in a battle the one in the book was based off of.

One downside of historically accurate fiction is that it is often loaded with sexism and misogyny the contemporary world is struggling to shake. Throughout this trilogy, were there was no shortage of sexist men treating woman like inferior beings or objects. However, I was happy  that there were less of those in this book and that Vasya had earned the respect of men who previously looked down on her.

As much as I enjoy escaping to worlds without sexism, to worlds where gender isn’t a rigid binary thing people are judged by, I do believe there is plenty of room for those books to co-exist with novels like this that don’t censor the shitty parts of history. Historical fantasy has it’s value too. It makes me appreciate how far society has come.I’ll certainly miss Vasya, Morozko, and their complex, slow burn romance, but I’ll look forward to reading whatever Arden writes next.

Click here to buy The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

Book Review: The Disasters

The Disasters  is a treasure. After the last future-set, sci-fi book I read, The Disasters was like a breath of fresh air.  The Disasters had  a narrative kept me glued to kindle, only taking a breaks to do necessary things like eat, use the bathroom, and walk the dog until the book was done.

Thankfully, I’m a fast reader, and this was a fast book (in a good way).  

So, what is the story?

A group of teens who just failed out of an elite space academy survive a attack that takes out their classmates, flee the system, and fight to stop the terrorists from killing more people.

Said group of teens is pretty awesome.

The narrator, Nax,  is a bi pilot coping with anxiety from a wreck he was in a few years ago. I loved seeing how he decided to say things that made him seem like a classic, cocky, hotshot pilot while being very scared and insecure.  I was rooting for him from the start, and loved his interactions with a crew that was diverse in terms of gender, sexual orientation, race, and nationality.

Terrorist attack aside, this future was super optimistic.

For the most part, humans weren’t fighting each other. There was peace on Earth and in the “the colonies.” Most people were getting along…except for this one group that wanted to kill everyone…but that group was a small portion of the population. Most groups got a long way better than they do today.

The word “colonies” made me cringe a little the first time I saw it on the page, however, it’s un-inhabited planets, not cultures and people, that are being colonized. This universe is similar to the one Firefly was set in, where humans have found habitable worlds and terraformed others to make them habitable, but have not yet discovered other sentient life in the galaxy.

I also loved how the book handled diversity. It wasn’t about diversity. It wasn’t about being bi, muslim, trans, black, gay, white, or straight. It was about teens trying to save the galaxy. Their identities were part of them, added richness to their personalities, made them unique, and made them feel real. The book gave me hope that one day, things like racism, transphobia, islamophobia, and  homophobia will be things of the past. This future is the kind I seek out in science fiction.

I’ve read books like this before, that do all the amazing this one does, but most of them have been from small presses. I’m happy to see that larger publishing houses are finally catching on.

Next time you are in the mood for some great science fiction,  read The Disasters! 

2018 Publication Round-up

2018 is just about over, and while it may not have been my most fruitful year for producing new work, it was a fantastic year for publishing. My first novel was published. My short fiction and poetry appeared in nineteen publications

Of all of these, my favorite is my novel, Power Surge. For short stories, I’m most proud of “Ink and Ash” in The Society of Misfit Stories.

For flash fiction, it’s a tie between “You Won’t Believe How This Creature Changed Their Lives!” in Vulture Bones and “Roots” in The Cascadia Subduction Zone.

“Butter is Not a Dress” in Hashtag Queer Anthology Series is the best poem I have ever written!

If you’re looking for pieces to nominate for awards, check those out! Below is a roundup all of my 2018 publications, including cover art when applicable, links, and a short blurb for each story.

January 22:

“It Sucks to Be a Succubus” in Unnerving Magazine.

A succubus tries to have a fun night out without killing anyone.

February 6:

“Snow Fox” in Once Upon a Rainbow Volume Two

 Jealous Queen E’s attempts on Snow Fox’s life are trending.

March 5:

“The Blind Girl and the Troll” in Asymmetry.

A troll hungry troll decides to aid a refugee instead of eating her, and it alters the state of his existence. 

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 8.25.23 PM.png

March 21:

“Thunder Cars” in (Dis)Ability Short Story Anthology

Food shopping with anxiety is like weathering a storm.

April 3:

“Liberty Underground” in Teach. Write.

There is more to this seemingly haunted house than meets the eye.

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 8.31.16 PM.pngMay 1:

“You Won’t Believe How This Creature Changed Their Lives!” in Vulture Bones

Two siblings find a magical creature. 

May 31:

Dragon’s Bane” in Menagerie de Mythique Anthology.

Not your average dragon hunter

June 20:

“Gala Down” in Drabbledark

Politics and food don’t mix well.

June 22:

“Butter is Not a Dress” in Hashtag Queer Anthology Series

A poem about gender identity and clothing.

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 8.44.12 PM.pngJuly 23:

“Roots” in The Cascadia Subduction Zone

Home isn’t always the house you live in.

July 31:

“The Debutante” in Fantasia Divinity Magazine

A steampunk match-making AI. 

August 30:

“Djinn and Tonic” and “Surviving Seaglass” in Chronos

Two speculative drabbles that explore how supernatural being perceive time.

September 19:

“The Omen” in UnSung (Better Futures Press)

*There is no link to this one because shortly after publication, the publisher appeared to have folded.

September 20:

“A Kitten for the Kelpiecorn” in Four Star Stories.*

A kelpiecorn adopts a kitten.

*The issue it appeared in is no longer available and has yet to appear on the sites archives page.

October 1

Power Surge (The Evanstar Chronicles)

Being hunted by demons isn’t the worst part; it’s the lies.

October 14:

“A Curious Case in the Deep” in Broadswords and Blasters.

Two brave ocean explorers make an unexpected discovery.

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 9.17.20 PM.pngNovember 6:

“Piggish Persistence” in Empyreome Magazine

One magician tries to subvert the pharma-guild’s control on the medical. potions industry

November 1:

“Denial and Acceptance” in Trump Fiction: ECR Special Edition

Aliens invade in the final days of the Trump administration.

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 9.21.06 PM.pngNovember 12, 2018:

“Ink and Ash” in The Society of Misfit Stories

When the government outlaws the use of wands in magic, two siblings find themselves on opposite sides of the law.

November 30, 2018:

“Behind the Scenes” in Unrealpolitik

Werewolves play an important role in the National Park Service’s future.

 

Book Review: Seven Things Not to Do When Everyone’s Trying to Kill You

Screen Shot 2018-12-21 at 12.02.24 AM.pngI received a free copy of this from the author in exchange for a fair, honest review.

If you are looking for a quick, fun read, then I highly recommend reading Seven Things Not to Do When Everyone’s Trying to Kill You. 

Bryant Adams is a goofy narrator who likes to break the fourth wall. In Book 1 (How I Magically Messed Up My Life in Four Freaking Days) he gets a magic smart phone, finds out he is a wizard and and wrecks awkwardly funny teenage havoc in New York City. Now, in book 2, ( Seven Things Not to Do When Everyone’s Trying to Kill You) he has learned a thing or two about magic and had plenty of time to recover from his first ordeal. Of course, that quiet can’t last forever.

Someone, or several someones, are out to get Bryant. He has to figure out who is trying to kill them while dealing with parents who have united for the first time in a long time because they both want to keep him away from magic. Except his enemies will come for him grounded or not.

Saying anything more specific than this about the plot might become a spoiler. With the book moving so fast, I didn’t really notice the plot building. There were plenty of battles, but it all blended together and then all of a sudden it was the final battle, which seemed to easy. This was fun to read, but it was also a bit anticlimactic.

Everything else about the book was great. The voice is sweet and goofy.  The dynamic between the characters was energetic. I love how light-hearted this is even with life or death stakes. I read a lot of angsty, drama ridden stories (and maybe write them to). This was a nice break from those.

The characters may not change a whole lot throughout the book, and it may not have an in-depth exploration of any serious social issues, but I’m okay with. Not all books need to be deep, dark, and philosophical.

There is something optimistic and innocent about Bryant Adams. If you want a cheerful, laugh out loud romp of a read with plenty of magical battles and a teeny tiny little bit of kissing, read this.

It doesn’t come out until April 16th 2019, so you’re probably going to have to a wait a little to read it. So if you haven’t read the first book in the series, How I Magically Messed Up My Life in Four Freaking Days

Book Review: The Razor

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I received a free copy of this through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

The Razor is both the title of the book and the setting. It’s a small strip of habitable land on an otherwise inhabitable planet: one side is firestorms and radiation, the other is ice and cold that will kill you as quick as the fire. It’s also a hard labor prison planet where criminals were inmates mine for an a material that is used to power most technology in the galaxy. The entire story is set in the Razor, but throughout the story, I gathered the galaxy was a lot like the one firefly happened in: colonized and terraformed by humans, lacking in extraterrestrial life.

The plot was loaded with puzzles and survival. An “innocent” man framed for murder and condemned to a life sentence, a former guard imprisoned for a murder he did commit (the victim deserved it), a badass female pirate, a female doctor, and an enhanced human all word together to survive and achieve their own goals.

All the characters had colorful personalities, clear wants, and plenty of growth throughout the book, they also fit too neatly into little boxes. For example, Key, the badass lady pirate who tough on the outside, soft on the inside, could’ve been Zoë from Firefly or Fiona from Burn Notice. Each character seemed to fit a mold or trope that had been done before. Still, it was fun to watch their stories intertwine as they all fought to survive, changing and falling in love in the process.

While I mostly enjoyed the elements in the foreground of this book, there were little things in the background that bothered me. Just about all the guards seemed like they were white men. Unless I misread, the diversity was all among the prisoners. Like it probably does in most cultures, rape culture ran rampant among both prisoners and corrupt guards. There was no LGBTQ+ rep at all. I expected a lot of this since it was a prison planet for the galaxy’s “worst” criminals, but with future science fiction, if it isn’t outright dystopia, I prefer a little more optimism. Not more of the same.

At least with dystopias, the problematic content has a purpose. It may be worse than present day, but it has a clear link to something contemporary, and it screaming “Look at this problem! Fix it before it gets out of control.” That was not what this book was doing. It was more like “here is exactly what most people expect from a prison full of killers, thieves, smugglers and sex-offenders. It isn’t any different in the future than it is now, except maybe a little worse because there is not getting out and they’re pretty much slaves.”

The end was satisfying, even though parts of it got a little cliche. It set up for a sequel, which I will read. Despite of my complaints, I got attached to these characters and want to read more about them.

Click here to buy on Amazon