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! 

YA: Teens First, Adults who are Young (or young at heart), Second

A few days ago, I read The Many Ways YA Books & The Community Isolates Teens by VICKY WHO READS. It was a thought provoking blog post about Young Adult (YA) fiction that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how teens are isolated from the books that are supposed for them.

Because adults are the ones writing YA, publishing it, and spending money on it, teen voices often get left out of the genre. This had me wondering if my YA fiction was guilty of isolating teens, and if as someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time with teens, I should even be writing books labeled as for teens.

I’m still grappling that and one way I am pursuing it is by reflecting on how I read as a teenager so I can see how it impacts my assumptions about teen readers. What I discovered about the later is worth sharing.

I was high school from 2002-2006, and I was barely aware that there was a category of fiction labeled as “Young Adult.” I think read about five YA titles on my own, unless you count the Harry Potter or Artemis Fowl series, but I think those are really middle grade.

Some of the books I was forced to read, like Lord of the Flies or A Separate Peace might be labeled YA now, but they were written long before YA was an official category.

I was actually in college when I started seeking out and reading YA novels. I met a girl who called herself Artemis, and she let me borrow a copy of Tithe by Holly Black. She introduced me Libbra Bray,  and eventually Cassandra Clare (whose books made me shelve Power Surge for a long, long time).

If I wasn’t reading YA in high school, what was I reading?

Anything Tolkien. I read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings multiple times. I read Tolkien’s short stories and poems. I started The Silmarillion and then I took a break from Tolkien.

The Star Wars Expanded Universe, which sadly is no longer cannon. There were plenty of books in that series to keep me busy for a long time. Why would I bother with the YA shelves when all the good Star Wars stories where in the Sci-Fi section?

Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni novels were one of the best things my senior English teacher introduced me too.

I’m almost certain I was a senior in high school when I started reading The Dresden Files, though it might have been the summer after graduation. I know was not happy when I got to White Night and realized it wasn’t out yet.

I loved these books. I bought them in used book stores, or the used “Section” of my favorite indie bookstores (Jabberwocky and Toadstool). If I couldn’t find it used, I went to the new section, and if it wasn’t there, Borders almost always had it. The staff often said they could special order things for me, but I never wanted to wait that long.

I didn’t really write reviews since I didn’t spend much time online. There was one computer in the house that I shared with my parents. The only review I remember writing of a bool was for my local new paper’s teen authored page. Normally, they published teen authored movie reviews every Saturday. But one week, they let me choose a book from a selection of ARC’s they’d gotten. I picked a science fiction novel by Mike Resnick.It wasn’t YA. I don’t remember which one and I don’t think I’ve ever read any other books.

I occasionally pre-ordered things, especially if it was summer and I had money from my job as a game attendant at Canobie Lake Park.

Like many of the teens mentioned in Vicky’s post, I did not have a huge influence on the industry.

The other question is, did I connect to those characters?

Jaina Solo and Mara Jade Skywalker are still two of my favorite heroines and I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive Disney for erasing them. Mara was an adult, but when I started reading, Jaina was a teen who acted as much like a teen as one can when being a Jedi and the daughter of Han and Leia. She acted more teen-like than the adult characters, and as she aged, her voice matured appropriately.

And with the other stories? Tolkien?  Butcher? Kurtz?

No. Their characters weren’t other teens with relatable experiences. They were fascinating heroes I could vicariously live through for days on end, but they didn’t really share problems or experiences with me.

They weren’t necessarily characters I needed. They didn’t show me it was okay to be depressed, or that medication wouldn’t change who I was or ruin my ability to be creative. They didn’t help me understand why I was so jealous of the girls who boy’s clothing or help me understand that I could dress like that too if I wanted to.

Honestly, I can’t say the actual “YA” books did any better. Later, when I read YA in college, I found those characters relatable to my self as a college student. They weren’t much more relevant to high-school me than Harry Dresden or Bilbo Baggins.

These are books that had a big impact on my writing: Holly Black for the better and Cassandra Clare for the worse (because I thought there wasn’t room on the shelf for both of our demon hunter books).

I try to write the books I think would’ve helped me if I picked them up as a teen, but I’m 30 and I can’t help but wonder: are my teens to mature? Did I Erin Evanstar grow up too much between draft 1 and draft 15? Will they help teens how I imagine? Will teens even read Power Surge?

So far, more 3/5 of my reviews are from adult men.

The only non-adult feedback I’ve gotten is from the 7th grader in my neighborhood who hangs out with the adults more than the kids. They said they were loving it so much that their mom had to take it away so they could do their homework. They said it was relatable, but when I asked why, they said it was because of the protagonist used “they/them” as a pronoun. How much of this kid connecting was because the 17-year-old character as a whole was relatable, and how much of it was because they just hadn’t read many other books with enby protagonists?

I have no clue.

Going forward, if I truely want my books to serve teens, I need to seek out feedback from teen beta readers and read whatever teen authored reviews and book blogs I can find, otherwise, my “YA” will be for adults who are young, not teenagers.

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: 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

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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