Book Review: The Sisters of the Winter Wood

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: 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: Ruin of Stars

Ruin of Stars (Mask of Shadows, #2)Ruin of Stars by Linsey Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a free electronic copy of Ruin of Stars, the sequel to Mask of Shadows, in exchange for an honest review.

Mask of Shadows was good, but Ruin of Stars is still ten times better.

The plot in Ruin of Stars was complex and nuanced. It didn’t follow a trope like it’s predecessor; it was more completely driven by the characters wants and what got in their way.

Sal’s drive for revenge has aligned with the needs of the queen, so Sal is sent out to kill the rest of the people on their list. In the process, Sal encounters betrayals, loses someone they care about, and discovers something that changes their world. Being any more specific than this will give too much away and ruin the book. Reading through it was like untangling a tight not — difficult at times, but so satisfying when it was done.

As I read, my understanding of my favorite characters grew deeper and more complex. They had me rooting for them, hating them, and crying for them, sometimes all at once.

The prose were well crafted and lyrical, making the feelings and emotions of these characters so clear I could almost feel themself. I always appreciate writers who can do this because it is one of the things I struggle with most when it comes to my own writing.

More detail was giving to the politics of the world in this book than in Mask of Shadows. That helped me understand some of the hatred and the motives for it that motivated several characters, including Sal. Erland culture was definitely explored in more detail, including not so subtle descriptions about appearance and ideology that made me think of the Erland lords as Nazi-inspired.

All the descriptions of being gender fluid and of how it felt when society doesn’t acknowledge that rang true to me. Like Sal, I’m “fluid” and “in-between.” At times, I felt the explanations of Sal’s gender identity and of other characters’ gender identities and sexualities to be a little too heavy handed. At some points, the description of it seemed to overpower other aspects of the story, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I may have been reading thinking “obviously, that is a valid identity,” but I forget that there are probably ten times as many readers who know very little about not really being a man or a woman, but something in between. In my own work, critique partners and beta readers have said I don’t explain it enough, so what seems like too much for me may not be for the readers who need to read and learn from this book.

For once, I was actually surprised by the ending. Just when I thought I knew exactly how it would turn out, something changed, and I think the epilogue was best part. But I won’t spoil it — so pre-order the book, and read it as soon as you can.

Haven’t read Mask of Shadows yet? Check out my review of it here.

 

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.

View all my reviews

Happy Book Birthday Half Breeds!

Half Breeds 1
Kicked out of private school, Allen has to brave a public high school where most of the kids don’t know supernatural creatures exist. He expects to be miserable, but he finds himself romantically pursued by two people: a shy, but fascinating boy named Jeremy and a spunky girl named Chloe. The demon in Allen wants to feed off Chloe, but the human part of him is falling for Jeremy. Which will win?

Today, my first stand alone story, a novelette called Half Breeds is released to the wild. The ebook is for sale and ready to download on Amazon and on Nine Star Press’ website.

Of all the short stories that I’ve written, Half Breeds is one of my favorites. Sometimes I struggle portraying emotion and sexual tension without being corny, but in this story more so than others, I feel like I managed to balance emotion, tension and humor.

Half Breeds may be a paranormal tale featuring teens who are half demon and half angel, but in it, I explore very human concepts, like sexuality, consent, self-image and the feeling of being a monster. These are topics I love to write about because they are always snaking around in my mind, but sometimes, they make people uncomfortable.

Since consent and sexual harassment are largely discussed, public issues, I was a little worried how readers would react to a particular scene where Allen, the main character, doesn’t respect another characters revoked consent while they are making out. It’s an important scene because it’s a realistic situation in Allen makes the wrong choice, and has to face the consequences of it.

One review said “The bathroom scene made me a little uncomfortable to be honest but I think if you truly read it in the context of the story it’s tolerable…… kind of” while another said “Codair handles these issues with grace and humor.” The point, at least to a certain extent, was to make the readers uncomfortable, to make sure they saw how the character made the wrong decisions, and how it affected him after.  I don’t want to alienate readers, but on occasion, I write things people shouldn’t be comfortable with because in some ways, it forces people to think about the issues more than hash tags  or vague posts.

Serious issues aside, I hope you find that Half Breeds a spooky and funny Halloween story that makes you think.