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: Space Opera

Space Opera was a strange book that seemed to break all the rules. Even though the end was slightly anticlimactic end, it was an enjoyable ride. However,  it did take me while to get into. This was not the kind of book I got sucked into right away and read in a few hours.

The long rambling yet slightly lyrical sentences combine with a snarky, intentionally all over the place omniscient narrator made it hard for me to engage with the character. I didn’t always care what happened X many years ago and just wanted the narrator to hurry up and get back to focusing on one characters. Granted, there were plenty of times I enjoyed all the world building and back story, I just could have done with a teeny tiny bit less of it.

The characters were fascinating, both the humans and aliens. They were colorful, lively, and flawed.

I expected this to have me laughing constantly, and while it was funny, I think some of the jokes went over my head.

With all the backstory of the world and characters that was given, I thought it was all going to come together in a spectacular way. And it did come together, but I was a little let down.

Space Opera was entertaining. Sometimes it made me laugh, other times it made me think. However, it failed to hold my attention for long periods of time.

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.

IWSG Day: Hero, Villain, Perspective

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

The first Wednesday of every month, the IWSG posts an optional question, encouraging members to read and comment on each other’s blogs.

March’s Question is:

Whose perspective do you like to write from best, the hero (protagonist) or the villain (antagonist)? And why?

My favorite characters to write are the ones who are both hero and villain.

Power Surge is a great example of this. The whole book is from Erin Evanstar’s point of view, and the conflict with the most tension is Erin versus Erin.

Technically speaking, there is mysterious demon stalking Erin who eventually plays the role of the villain Erin has to fight. But honestly? For most of the book, Erin is in more danger of hurting  themself than they are of being seriously wounded or murdered by the demon. After all, the demon wants to capture Erin alive, and while it isn’t shown on the page, readers know that Erin has attempted suicide at least once in the past two years.

Danger factor aside, the demon villain isn’t on page as much as a villain should be and doesn’t take as much action as a true antagonist would. He’s not even the real big bag behind the apocalypse, but an agent of that big bad.

Power Surge QuoteErin is their own antagonist.

In the relationship subplot between Erin and José, Erin is the biggest obstacle Erin has to overcome. José isn’t perfect. He says and does some stupid things because he is a mess, but inside, he really is a sweet guy who selflessly loves Erin. As much as Erin loves him too, there are times where they treat him horribly. If the relationship is going to work, Erin needs to defeat Erin.They need kick their dark, selfish side’s ass.

I have written heroes who are actually decent human beings and have actuall villains to defeat, and I’ve enjoyed writing them, but not as much as I’ve enjoyed Erin and other characters like Erin. I love the necromancer, succubus, troll, and human-eating alien farmer that have doubled as antagonists and protagonists in my short stories.

I think I know why.

The stories and characters I become the most invested in are the ones inspired by my fears. There are plenty of things I’m afraid of. Serial killers, bad dog owners, parking garages at night, elevators, crowds, sexual predators, and the dark are just a few items on a long, long list.

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But the darkness I fear most is the one that quietly lurks inside of me. What would happen if it got too loud? Who could I hurt? What lines would I cross? Would there be any chance of redemption?

I write this darkness into my characters. I make it worse. I give them less self control. I make their upbringing rough and filled with tragedy and a lack of good mentors, and with things I imagine would have pushed me over to the dark side.

Soon enough, the characters take on a life of their own. When I start to get that feeling that they are growing independently of me and making their own choices, it is time to get plotting.

I want to see how long they can hold their own darkness off for. I want to see what happens when they fail. What lines will they cross? Can they come back once they cross those lines?

Interested in Power Surge?
Get the ebook  for $3.25: http://bit.ly/PSSmash

Book Review: Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Because the topic was so meaningful, this review contains more reflection on my own experience and identity than I typically include in my reviews.

I often think I live in multiple words: Real life, the Twitterverse, and the fictional worlds of all the stories I write. In real life, very few people I know truly understand the concept nonbinary. In my bubble of the Twitterverse, I interact with all kinds of writers and artist who use gender neutral pronouns and identify as something other than man or woman. I love the LGBTQ+ community I’ve found online, but I have made little to no effort to seek similar people in real life because I question if I really belong there since I’ve never been in or tried to be in a same-sex relationship.

Non-Binary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity showed me that I am not the only Non-Binary person who has wondered what communities they really belong in. While there was no one memoir where I thought, “this person story is just like mine” many of the stories echoed and validated different aspects of my existence and opened my eyes to how varied the non-binary experience is.

And really, it probably would’ve bothered me if someone’s experience had been almost exactly like mine because part of my identity has always been that I am odd and unique.

Each essay was beautifully written, honest, and engaging. I don’t remember a single moment where I got bored. Even the introduction held my attention.

One of my favorite things about this book was that it included voices from all across the spectrum of nonbinary people.

In my internet bubble, the most visible nonbinary people are like me: white and were assigned female at birth (AFAB). Many, but not all, are middle class or close to it. Me and many of the authors in this book agreed that this is the most visible portion of the non-binary spectrum, but it only represents a small portion of nonbinary people

Non-Binary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity not only included people like, but it also boosted the voices of those who were assigned male at birth (AMAB). It included people of color– Black, Asian, and Latinx authors.

Some essays touched on sexuality, but others didn’t. While many of the authors in this book once identified as butch lesbians, I was happy to see some, who like me, never were attracted to CIS people who shared the same assigned gender. This is one of the things that always makes me question whether or not my identity is valid. However, reading the essays in Non-Binary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity that echoed this experience reminded that my non-binary identity is still valid, and it is not at all related to my sexuality.

Because of the range of experiences encompassed in this book, I think most nonbinary people will be able to see echoes of themselves and their experiences show up in this book.

However, I think it is something I hope is widely read by CIS people, by people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Each narrative is crafted in a way that will show CIS readers what it means to be non-binary.

When I started reading Non-Binary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity, I was almost certain it would be something I could assign for my students to read. However, like most collections of essays, there is too much on the same topic to read in one semester. No matter how good the writing is, a whole book of essays on the same topic always seems to result in my students losing interest before we get to the end, and if I were to assign the book and only read a portion of the essays, they would complain about having spent money on a book we only used part of. The later might not be an issue if I could get them to see the value of the book, so using it isn’t fully out of the equation yet.

No matter who you are, if you want to learn more about what it means to be non-binary, please buy and read this book.

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. 

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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: 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

Book Review: The Outlaw and the Upstart King

4/5 Stars: Untitled design (2)

With the Outlaw and the Upstart King, Rod Duncan veered away from steampunk style plot and setting. The feudal, political coup plot that seemed like it belonged in a fantasy novel, only it had no magic. It was a great story in a very well-developed land with a fascinating political system. It just wasn’t what I expected when I started reading.

The story more or less picked up where the previous book, The Queen of All Crows, left off, but Outlaw and the Upstart King hardly felt like part of the series. There were tie-ins, but a reader could also pick up that book and read it as a stand-alone, or without having read any of the other books in the series and still appreciate. They only things they might not get were the importance of the “big reveal” of Elizabeth’s identity, fleeting references to other characters, and vague hints at how this connected to plots to bring down the Gaslit Empire. These things were subtle enough that they wouldn’t ruin the story for a new reader, but they reminded those of us who have read the whole story that this book was indeed part of it.

The Outlaw and the Upstart King followed two characters, Elias and of course, the heroine of the series, Elizabeth Barnabus. The first part of the book was from Elias’ point-of-view, though there was a character who came in and out of the picture that I suspected was Elizabeth. At the end of Part 1, I learned I was right. Elizabeth was indeed that character. Up to this point, I’d been frustrated that I hadn’t seen anything from Elizabeth’s point of view. And while it was interesting to see the next chapter recap what had happened so far from her point of view, it was a technique I think works a little better in movies than books.

Elias is a fascinating character for sure. He has clear motives and through a balance of flashbacks, action, and internal thought, the reader knows why he has those motives and how they formed. I loved how he wasn’t a “good guy”  but I still wanted him to succeed, to grow, and learn to see himself how others saw him. Watching him intellectually spar with Elizabeth was also entertaining.

However, I wanted a little more from some of the other characters. Julia was mentioned, but kept passive and out of sight for the whole book. She didn’t really do anything other than be one of Elizabeth’s motivations until the the climax had passed and she was assisting in the resolution. Tinker was there more, blending in mostly, but he didn’t do anything of importance. In previous books, he used his ability to move around unnoticed to help with whatever Elizabeth plans in some significant way. This time, he didn’t, at least not in any way I noticed.

In the end, it was clear how this did connect to some of the larger, political movements that were happening between the Gas-Lit empire and the nations outside it, however, that felt much further in the background than in previous books. The benefit of it was that it did allow more of a focus on character development and the more immediate action.

One thing I’ve always loved about this series is how it explores gender and gender roles. Back in England, within the Gas-Lit empire, society certainly was male dominated. However, it was social norms, laws, and a sense propriety that suppressed woman. Elizabeth grew up in a circus, outside the some many social and cultural norms, so she was less influenced by them and more independent than other woman around her. Her resistance to the role women were forced into and a need to live independently drove Elizabeth to use skills  she developed in her father’s show to create a second-male identity: a brother she pretended to live with.

Watching Elizabeth slip back and forth between man and woman was what originally helped me connect with her. I always read her as genderfluid even though as the books went on, her male identity was used less and less.

In this book, it was non-existent.

In the culture this story happened in, women were oppressed as much as London, though in different ways. In the Outlaw and the Upstart King , a single woman owned and ran an inn/tavern and promiscuity seemed more acceptable. However, here, perhaps more than in any other place Elizabeth has been, women were objects subject to the whims of physically stronger men.

Elizabeth was dependent on and/or under the control of men throughout the book, forever playing the part of a woman, and really feeling like a side character in her own book. This was Elias’ story, not Elizabeths.

If I was a new reader with no attachment to Elizabeth, I would give this book five stars because it was beautifully written and clearly well researched. The plot was well executed. The world richly developed.

However, I’m used to seeing Elizabeth in control and in charge not matter how bad the situation got, and it killed me to see her with so little agency, only able to influence the outcome of events in subtle, typically female ways.

Book Review: Hiddensee

Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker definitely gets five stars.

I’ve been reading Gregory Maguire’s novels since I was in high school.  I picked up Wicked in a time when I was just starting rediscover a love of books that had been lost when I got “too old” for picture books. That feeling of being wholly absorbed in a fictional word was still new then. Since then, I’ve read almost all of the books that he’s published, but none had compared to the experience of reading Wicked until now when I picked up Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker.

In most of Maguire’s works, the protagonist was a side character or antagonist in an existing tale. In Hiddensee, it was Drosselmeier from the Nutcracker. The narrative begins when he was boy named Dirk with no surname. After dying in the forest and being brought back by a mystical being, he leaves his adopted family (who seem to be myths themselves) and sets out on the long adventure that becomes his life.

Dirk, who eventually becomes Dirk Drosselmeier, is a fascinating,  frustratingly flawed character who I cheered for throughout the whole book, drawn in further by each of his mistakes and missed opporturnities.

While the magic didn’t play as large a role in this as it would a fantasy novel, myths and mysticism were forever in the background, not fully noticed by Drosselmeier, but not gone either. It gave the historic setting a layer of enchantment, further drawing me into the world Maguire built.

Sometimes I found myself frustrated, wishing he’d see the magic and beauty in front of him before it was too late, but that just pushed me to keep turning the pages.

It’s not an entirely new concept, but I loved how myths and Christianity intersected in this book.  Early in the narrative, when Drosselmeier was freshly resurrected, he spent a few years working in a church where the voices of the mice and thrushes first went silent. Christianity, particularly the protest branch emerging in the time period,  was a mystical force of it’s own, conquering and exiling the folklore that proceeded it. Neither is portrayed as inherently good or bad, but one is coming and the other is going, and like anytime something leaves, there is a sense of melancholy and grief that accompanies it.

Grief and loss were as constant presence in Hiddensee. 

Drosselmeier’s relationships and romances, particularly with a man he first met while working in the kitchens at a wealthy family’s estate, were as heartbreaking as they were beautiful. I can’t say much more without giving away the plot. However, I warn you: if you decide to read this, keep the tissues near by.

Hiddensee is beautiful and sad and definitely worth reading, especially if you are looking for something enchanting to read around the holidays.

Buy links: 

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2QxLlhP

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/hiddensee-gregory-maguire/1126007372#/

Indie Bound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780062684387