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! 

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: Ardulum Third Don

Ardulum: Third DonArdulum: Third Don by J.S. Fields

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review coming soon4.5 Stars
Ardulum Third Don was the perfect ending to the trilogy. I can’t comment too much on why without spoiling it, so I’ll just that it came full circle and took Neek aka Atalant in a direction she never expected her life would go.

While the characters are entertaining with fulfilling arcs, my favorite part of this series is the science and how it intersects with a touch of the unknown — of something greater and more spiritual that is just beyond the reach of hard science. I love the idea of spaceships made out of cellulose, of highly intelligent fungi capable of taking down a fleet of spaceships and the sheer biodiversity of the beings in this galaxy.

The vastness of it was very well developed, though I will admit that I had a hard time orienting myself when I returned to book three. I read the first two books back to back, and then I had to wait several months for the third installment. This series is one best binge read.

There is so much to keep track of in the galaxy, but readers are gradually introduced to it in the first two books. I didn’t get lost in those at all. However, having forgot some of those details, trying to remember them, or having to look them up in the back of the book, did pull me out of the story. This is my fault as a reader though, not necessarily a flaw of the story.

The real reason I gave this 4.5 instead of 5 stars was because Captain K’s relationship with the Mmnnuggl was confusing. I did have a hard time following his relationship to them and their thoughts of him. I kept thinking there was an inconsistency but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

Otherwise, once I got back into the flow of the world, I was quite pleased with the overall experience, and very happy to see non-binary characters having adventures in space. There was a great balance of seriousness and humor, a touch of romance that didn’t overpower the plot, plenty of ethical questions to stimulate my mind, suspense, space battles, a great plot and characters I want to spend more time with.

This is a fantastic series. If you are starting from book 1, give yourself time to read the whole trilogy straight through.

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Fantasy a No Go with This Years Students

Back in January, you may have seen my post about using novels instead of textbooks for my ENG101 and RWR090 classes. Two of the novels worked out okay, but one was a disaster.

Feed by M. T. Anderson

This semester’s 101 students weren’t as enthusiastic about Feed as last semesters, but after a rocky start, they did get into the book. The romance plot hooked them. They engaged with the book when characters made bad choices. Most importantly, it made them think. They saw clear connections between the book, the articles we read, and the TED talks we watched.

When it came time to write essays, they dug into topics like consumerism, dependence on technology, and social media. They succeeded at finding ways to narrow those things down, and while some struggled to balance all the different sources, most of them did assert and support an interesting thesis.

For now, I’ll continue to use Feed.

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

As much as I love this book, using it in class was a nightmare. I had thought that my students would like it because they could “see themselves” on the page and use things like the snippets of Spanish dialogue and description of familiar food to connect to the book. This backfired. I was being stupid, letting my white, middle class privilege influence my thoughts.

Yes, some students did like the descriptions of Caribbean food and connected to the relationships the characters had to their family members. Some of them had even lived in the neighborhood the story was set in. It helped a little, but mostly, they were indifferent to it or bored.

The supernatural elements were what tipped them over the edge. The idea of characters controlling and summoning spirits disturbed them. Some couldn’t understand the magic system but more found it to be too real. At least one or two students believed in spirits. One said their pastor told them not to read it, because that kind of thing “opened doors” for bad spirits to come in. Another said a friends aunt claimed to be able to control spirits and use magic to bring people good or bad luck.

The combination of being bored with the setting, disturbed by the magic, and annoyed by the main character meant they complained about the book non-stop. It didn’t help that I was out with a concussion for a good part of that unit.

When it came time to write, they trudged through a character analysis, wrote reviews for extra credit, and celebrated when it was over.

Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

This is a book I will again for RWR090. My students did seem to enjoy it and learn a lot from it. They could relate to the experience to some of the experiences the main character had balancing American culture with her parent’s culture and loved learning about Indian and Muslim culture.

Their essays were thoughtful explorations of concepts that came up in the book, and with no small amount of hard work, they found articles about those concepts and connected them to the book.

I admit I didn’t do nearly as much with it as I should’ve. I feel like I barely scratched the surface of it, and there is tons of untapped potential to explore in a new semester with a new group of students. I think I was a little drained or burn out from the rougher portions of the semester. However, with time to reflect on and examine what I did and didn’t do, I can make much better use of it next time.

Comments?

I’m interested to hear if any one else has used novels in a first year writing course – one that isn’t specifically geared towards literature. What did you use? How did it go? Will you do it again? Why or why not?

 

Another Book Review: Shadowshaper

Shadowshaper (Shadowshaper, #1)Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper series has been in my TBR list for a while. I bought it a few weeks ago, but had to work through the ARC’s I had to review before I got to it. I don’t know why I waited so long to read this. It is amazing, and I am going to try really hard pinpoint what I loved about it without just saying it was awesome.

At first, the book seemed to play into the classic YA urban fantasy trope of teen finds out they are part of some supernatural world, but this book was so much more than that.

Yes, Sierra Santiago, spunky Puerto Rican protagonist, did get drawn into a supernatural world her family had hid from her, but her personality, and her friends, were enough to make the story unique. Of course, Older didn’t just leave it at that. Sierra has a powerful internal struggle against racism and expectations. While she struggles against terrifying enemies, she also has to learn to love herself for who she is — to embrace her culture and identity.

This is all painted in colorful detail against the backdrop of a diverse, alive, sensual Brooklyn, where gentrification and hipsters are creeping up on old school neighborhoods where old men play dominos in vacant lots.

Hailing from different parts of the Caribbean, the supporting characters, including a lesbian couple, added more flavor to cultural melting pot this story happens in.

Not only did I enjoy this story, but I learned from it. I was reminded of somethings that should be obvious but aren’t always. I’m “white” and sometimes we (me and other white people) stupidly tend lump “people of color” into a few categories, and/or don’t always think about how someone who might be Puerto Rican, like Sierra’s aunt, might be a bigot towards someone who was Haitian and “darker.” It reminded me of how one time, I overheard a Dominican student whisper, “I thought that kid was black, not Dominican” to one of their friends as class was ending.

Books like this one, are so important for so many reasons. They represent a groups neglected in literature, allowing more people to see their people on the page. They are also a way educate people who are culturally illiterate or blinded by whiteness. By saying this last thing, I worry even that I am taking value away from this book by partially making it “for white people.”
I always worry I am going to overstep my place when talking about race and other people’s cultures, but being silent only fuels oppression.

Anyway, culture and race issues aside, this is an awesome book. The plot, while a little formulaic, engaged me, the magic concept was unique and the characters were deep. So if you like YA urban fantasy, books like Mortal Instruments, Chronicles of Nick, and Tithe, read this book, because it is even better than those.

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A Review: Gender Identity in Queen of All Crows

The Queen of All Crows (The Map of Unknown Things, #1)The Queen of All Crows by Rod Duncan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Queen of All Crows

When my request Queen of All Crows was approved on NetGalley, I was thrilled to hear that the wait to see what happened with Elizabeth Barnabus and John Farthing would be over. However, my experience reading the newest story in the world of the Gas-Lit Empire was a little different than it was last year. It is impossible to review without touching on how gender is portrayed in it.

Now, I’m more open about my gender identity, and am more engaged in conversations about gender and sexuality. Even though Elizabeth is referred to as “she/he” I’ve always thought “they/them” would be better suited as far as pronouns go. Barnabus was one of the first characters whose gender identity seemed to come close to mine — not really man or woman, but something fluid and in between.

Yes, pretending to be a young man was labeled as a disguise, but to me, it always seemed like it was more part of Barbabus’ identity than a disguise, and I think part of why my review is four-stars, not five, was because of the phrase “disguise herself as a man” being present in the back cover copy and the manly appearance being referred to as a disguise in general. Narratives where a character presents a different gender just for an external purpose sometimes make non-binary and fluid identities less valid. However, the saving grace in this series is that Elizabeth’s “disguise” is so much more than a disguise. And in Queen of All Crows, it becomes even clearer that not even Elizabeth truely understands their own identity.

I read slower than normal, rereading every sentence that hinted at Barnabus’ true gender identity. Some lines made me angry by placing Barnabus’ in a binary, but then there were twice as many that proved my theory that whether the author intended it or not, Barnabus was genderfluid.

The role gender played in this book went far beyond one character’s identity. I could write a twenty page paper analyzing gender in this book. Much of the plot was driven by power and perceptions of power: power over technology and weapons, but more importantly, the balance of power between men, women and those who are both or neither.

As anyone who has read the other books knows, the Gas-Lit empire, is not a place women have much power or agency. However, in Queen of All Crows Barnabus travels to an island made up of all women, which unfortunately, fell into the trope of a complete reversal — women enslaving men, and claiming they are better than them when they are really no different. I was a bit annoyed at this, but even here, the characters did not lack depth, and this little bubble of reversal did seem necessary to the larger plot at work throughout the serie. Since the characters were varied and not all raging idiots, and the description and integration into the world was so well done, I was able to forgive this.

The book did not have too many other flaws. The opening was slow, but once the plot picked up it was difficult to put the book down. The descriptions were detailed and gorgeous. The emotions and tensions high. The characters were tested and changed. The role of power and technology really got me thinking, and at times, I had to stop mentally debate ideas before diving back in. It has all the makings of a classic read that will endure for centuries.

Yes, there are some flaws, but every book has flaws, and this ones just make it more revealing in so many ways. I highly recommend it, but also reccomend you read Custodian of Marvels trilogy first.

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A Review of Love, Hate & Other Filters

Love, Hate & Other FiltersLove, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

I received a free copy of Love, Hate, and Other Filters from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. I rarely read contemporary YA, but thought this might be a good book to use in one of the classes I teach at community college. Reading this book did not feel like work. It felt like “I don’t want to go to work because I don’t want to stop reading this book.”

At first, as the narrator pointed out in a well crafted, self-aware manner, it felt like Rom-Con, where the geeky girl has to choose between two boys. However, things got more serious as tension grew between her and her parents, and they got a lot more serious when a terrorist attack happened in their state. Here, the book ceased to feel like rom-com and became more literary. Then there was a twist that I absolutely loved and made me think, “yes, this is a book for today, and it is a book so many people need to read!” The end was bittersweet, giving choky feels that only a good book can give.

I love that this book made think while it kept me turning pages. How the excerpts at the beginning of the chapters left bread crumbs for the twist but didn’t fully give it away. I enjoyed how the narrator was a little self-aware, but it didn’t really break the fourth wall because she was a filmmaker and it just felt like how she thought.

My only complaint is that there was one scene when a girl was being attacked by a boy, and another boy saved her. From a romance plot point of view, I can see why the writer chose this. It doesn’t stop me from wishing either the girl saved herself, or her female friend kicked the assaulter’s ass.

I learned a lot from reading this, and I had a lot of fun while doing it. I hope it becomes a bestseller, because it is a perspective so many American’s need to learn to see from.

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Book Review: Walking on Water is a gorgeous and validating read.

Walking on WaterWalking on Water by Matthew J. Metzger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up an ARC of Walking on Water. I asked to review it because I love merfolk stories as long as they are not Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and have been hungry for own voices fantasy featuring trans and non-binary characters.

I admit, I was skeptical of the first two chapters because the book was set in the past, in societies that were even more binary than the modern world, especially for princes like the two mc’s.

It’s too easy, when writing women in a misogynistic society, to make women want to be men simply because a society treats them like crap. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case in Walking on Water.

Yes, Calla was oppressed by her controlling father and foiled by her girly sisters. She didn’t fit with other mermaids or accept the role women were supposed to play in her society, but it wasn’t until she found herself in the body of a human male that she fully realized she wasn’t a she, but a he. That moment was raw, beautiful and true. It was uplifting and validating to read about someone discovering their gender as an adult.

From that moment forward, I could not put the book the down. The tension was beautiful, and so was the depiction of two people communicating without words better than many people communicate with them. I kept hoping for a happy ending, and with every twist and turn, I wondered how the characters were going to overcome the obstacles that stood in front of them. As soon as I thought I knew how it would happen, something would change to make me second guess where the story was going. I suspected – hoped – it would have a happy ending. I just didn’t know how the heck the characters were going to get there. I won’t say anything else about the end, other than that it worked.

The prose were as gorgeous as the story, and the voices of the different narrators were so distinct that I never second guessed whose POV I was reading. Each narrator saw the world a little differently because in some ways, they were each from different worlds, and the author stayed consistent with this throughout. It included some stunning nautical imagery. Of course, I won’t deny my bias towards that. The ocean is in my blood. If merpeople and past lives exist, I was probable in a merman in one of my lives…

If you are looking for a good fantasy, a beach read, a romance, a just good rep of a trans character, and/or just something good to read, then you will enjoy this book.

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Book Review: Dalí

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 9.32.00 PMI received a free, electronic copy of Dalí from NineStar Press in exchange for an honest review.

I admit, I haven’t read much space opera, if any, since Karen Traviss stopped writing for the Star Wars franchise. I stuck to fantasy, and to science fiction that did not involve space travel because nothing quite compared to the Star Wars universe and the 40+ books I had read in it.

Dalí restored my faith in that particular sub-genre. The world building was exquisite, and done so smoothly that it did not distract from character development and plot. There was just enough description to help me picture the world, but it was concise and didn’t slow the story down. But most importantly, the characters were alive, diverse, fluid, and complex.

I am envious of Dalí’s ability to change gender to suit the their mood or the situation but remain neutral when they are just being theirself. I have a soft spot for characters that do not conform to the binary gender, and for characters that bounce back from trauma.

All that I mentioned above combined with the fascinating galaxy and the well woven Princess Bride references made this book a definite five stars.

There is so much more explore with this galaxy and its characters. I really hope this becomes a series!