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 Ghostshad 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.
Back in January, I was browsing my favorite bookstore and came across The Sisters of the Winter Wood. I’d heard about and seen this book on Twitter and couldn’t resist buying it even though I had gone in to pick up a different book that I had special ordered. I never leave a book store with just the one book I went in for.
This one was definitely a good impulse buy.
The Sisters of the Winter Wood is about two sisters, Liba and Laya, discovering who and what they truly and how their identities affect their relationship as sisters. Liba’s chapters are told in prose, while Laya’s are in verse. Not only did this keep me alert as a reader, but it also ensured I never got confused about who the narrator was.
Considering how in the author’s note, Rena Rossner, says this was in-part a retelling of Goblin Market, that format was a great choice for this book. Like Laya, the verse chapters were airy and musical. Like Libba, the the prose chapters were more grounded and earthy.
This book’s greatest flaw was it’s beginning. The first page or two were fascinating. The next 50 or 60 pages were stuffed with telling and exposition. Very little happened. I am the type of person who likes to read books almost straight through. On Tuesday night, I put this book down around 10 p.m. and went to sleep. I didn’t pick it up again until Friday because at that point, not enough had happened for me to get truly invested in the characters.
The beginning also fell into a trap that a lot of historical fantasy does. It goes a little overboard with the world building, especially when it comes to the gender within the period and place. It was great that eventually, a lot of the men turned out to be decent people, but there was so much emphasis on gender roles and relations in the beginning that I thought all the men were going to be a lot worse, and honestly, a lot of build up t really didn’t seem relevant by the end.
It was 100% worth slogging through the begining to get to the rest of the book. The tension and growth between Liba and Laya was fantastic. They each had their own delicious romantic subplot with someone they didn’t think their parents would approve of, and I wasn’t quite sure how it was all going to work out.
The dark, cold, forest setting was as enchanting as the goblins and shifters haunting it. And once we were past that initial info dump, there was a perfect blend of history and magic.
I learned a lot about Jewish culture of the time and place the book was set it, which according to the author’s note, was on the border of Ukraine and Moldova around 1904. The building antisemitism in the town, and the way it hurt the characters, was a tangible thing. It made me uncomfortable times, but in a necessary way. Scenes where characters are being harassed or slurred at are supposed to make a reader uncomfortable. If they don’t, something is wrong.
The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a beautiful novel filled with magic, tension, darkness, and plenty of opportunities to learn. I highly recommend it.
It’s been a while since I’ve read a paranormal romance centered around vampires. However, I used to be a big fan of the Sookie Stackhouse books, before HBO ruined them with “True Blood,” so when I had a chance to get an ARC of Echoes from the author, I took it.
Echoes was one of those books where I sat down, the cat jumped on my lap, and then I read the whole book in one night.
I really liked that both of the love interests were 1,000 year-old vampires as opposed to the cliche young human paired with an old vampire.
They author did a great job distinguishing the voices of the two characters and crafting their personalities. They were different but compatible. They both had complex backstories which were expertly woven into the narrative with details being revealed at just the right time.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel the opening was a little contrived. However, I’m not sure there is a way it could feel less so. There was no deception or misdirection at least. You knew right away who was playing what role in the book.
I think there was something that was supposed to come across as a twist, but the way it was set up in the beginning made the big reveal no surprise. Thankfully, I don’t like surprises.
My only other issue was with the end. I like happy ever after and happy for now, but this one was a little too neat and tidy. I kept waiting for the “but” and it never came, not even in the epilogue, which seemed like it was there to make sure readers knew this was a 100% happy ending with no loose ends.
Overall, it was a great read. It was cute. It balanced plot tropes and original, complex characters. It was predictable in a good way. Even though I had a good idea of how it was going to end from early in the book, I still couldn’t put it down.
Note: As you read this post, you may notice I’m vague about the content of the review. You could probably go on Goodreads and figure out what I’m referring to, but I don’t want this to be seen as a response or rebuttal to the review. My goal is to capture my thought process as a new author seeing a negative review of their first novel.
Up until this week, all the reviews that I’d seen for Power Surge have been positive, which of course, made me skeptical. Inevitably, someone was going to burst my bubble.
It finally happened. Someone who didn’t finish the book left a review without a rating.
I disregarded advice I’ve heard across the internet and read the review. I’m glad I read it, even if I was surprised by my reaction.
At first, my brain processed it like feedback from a CP or beta reader. I had to squash my instinct to explain why I wrote something the way I did, and then I had to squash my urge to reply thanking the reviewer.
I thought about what I could’ve changed in a scene the reviewer alluded to. I came to the conclusion that in general, I need to be more careful about how my main character and my narrative voice react to characters who say problematic things or hold problematic opinions.
After a day, I realized that in my mind, the review had shifted from what it actually was something completely different. I had latched onto to a specific phrase the reviewer mentioned and made the whole thing about that scene.
Early in the morning when I just wanted to go back to sleep, I took it personally, as if the characters flaws were my own.
I realized one assumption the reviewer made was literally wrong.
I thought that it was the only review people are going to pay attention to. No one else would buy my book. No agent or publisher will represent future works of mine.
I thought the reviewer was wrong. I thought the reviewer was calling me out on an important issue. I wanted to thank them. I wanted to argue. I wanted respond, to know more, but I didn’t because writers need to leave readers and reviewers alone.
Instead of filing the feedback aside for future work and moving on, as you can see, I obsessed over it.
But something good did come out of it.
It reminded me that just says they don’t like a character or can’t connect with a character in a published work, I’m shouldn’t think much of it, especially when I know other readers have connected to that character. That type of thing is subjective and varies from person to person.
If a character makes someone uncomfortable? That’s okay. I’ve read books with characters that made me uncomfortable too, but that didn’t mean that book was bad.
Different people react differently to different characters. A good chunk of this bad review was based off of things I think of as subjective, and some assumptions the person made because they stopped reading too soon.
However, when I see a reviewer mention something harmful, like misogyny, it is worth reflecting on. The reviewer mentioned a phrase a character used in a scene, and I think I could’ve done a better job showing the main character and the narrative voice’s disapproval of that attitude.
Now, that might not have fixed it for the reviewer, who might have perceived an overall tone that I’m somewhat oblivious to, but to me, that change would’ve helped.
If a reviewer calls an author out on problematic or harmful ideas, then the author needs to listen. They need to take that into account and reflect. Maybe the reviewer is onto something. Maybe they are misconstruing it or their reading is being influenced by some outside factor. Either way, it’s something for me to keep in the back of my head when I’m revising the sequel and other works, especially since I do tend to include characters who hold problematic opinions or say harmful things in some of my works.
Sometimes those characters change.
Sometimes I kill them.
Sometimes they don’t actually mean the things they say, but feel they are expected to act that way fit a certain mold…or they are just trying to piss someone off.
In future science fiction and secondary world fantasy, I’m open to leaving those characters out and writing about societies that have out grown a lot of the problems that plague Earth today. On the other hand, when I write books like Power Surge, urban fantasy with a contemporary setting, the nasty side of present-day humanity rears it’s ugly head.
Sometimes problematic ideas creep in unintentionally, stemming from things I may not realize I internalized. Other times, I think I am deliberate exposing the dirt and raking up the muck, yelling “Look! This is a problem! Do you see why?”
I need to careful that the narrative voice isn’t endorsing their harmful words and to remember that silence equals endorsement. I need to acknowledge that some readers don’t want to see certain harmful concepts represented on the page in any way, shape or form, and that if those readers pick up a book like Power Surge, they might have a problem with.
Books that ignore problematic concepts and try to show us a better way to live and think and act are incredibly important. Books that get messy and roll around in humanity’s, books that acknowledge harm ideas and punch them in the face are also important.
Reading a critical review of my book ended up being a thought provoking excercise that was worth the stress it created.
If you are interested in reading Power Surge, for yourself, here are some buy links.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Starsis good science fiction.
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.
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.