Kate’s Review: “Flamer”

Book: “Flamer” by Mike Curato

Publishing Info: Henry Holt and Co. BYR-Paperbacks, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Award-winning author and artist Mike Curato draws on his own experiences in Flamer, his debut graphic novel, telling a difficult story with humor, compassion, and love.

I know I’m not gay. Gay boys like other boys. I hate boys. They’re mean, and scary, and they’re always destroying something or saying something dumb or both.

I hate that word. Gay. It makes me feel . . . unsafe.

It’s the summer between middle school and high school, and Aiden Navarro is away at camp. Everyone’s going through changes—but for Aiden, the stakes feel higher. As he navigates friendships, deals with bullies, and spends time with Elias (a boy he can’t stop thinking about), he finds himself on a path of self-discovery and acceptance.

Review: I never did the whole summer camp thing as a kid. As far as I got was the YMCA Day camp program, but I was such an anxious kid with separation anxiety issues like whoa, overnight sleep away camp was NEVER going to work. I do feel like I missed something, especially since my sister did do one and really enjoyed it. So I do like reading stories that take place at summer camp. I stumbled upon “Flamer” by Mike Curato on Goodreads, and the themes sounded very much in my wheelhouse.

In some ways, “Flamer” feels a bit like the graphic memoir “Honor Girl” in that it has a teenager at camp struggling with their sexuality in the mid 90s. But for me the difference is that Aiden, our main character and fictionalized portrayal of Curato, has a lot more self loathing and and a lot more fear about his sexuality. Aiden is an outsider already, in that he’s bi-racial, he’s on the chubbier side, and he’s an easy target at his middle school, as well as for his emotionally abusive father. So while he has usually felt like he fits in at Scout Camp, his burgeoning sexuality starts to drive his anxiety up, especially as the micro aggressions and flat out bigotry of the time start to become more and more apparent. The story is mostly the last week at Scout Camp, as his safe space starts to feel less safe, and he moves towards an unknown future of high school and self discovery. Curato doesn’t shy away from the ugliness that Aiden has to deal with, be it because of his heritage, because of how he presents as more femme than his fellow Scouts, and how these stresses and the bullying is taking a toll on him and driving him to dark places. Aiden could be a mirror for many kids who are dealing with their own identity discoveries, and how the world around them can make those discoveries hard. The cruelty isn’t limited to fellow Scouts, but also pops up with Leaders who seem supportive, but have their own prejudices that they are harboring and that aren’t as hidden as they may think.

There is also a prevalent theme about Aiden’s Catholic Faith, and how he has always been drawn to certain aspects of the religion and the rituals. I know VERY little about Catholicism, but I thought that Curato really evoked the appreciation that Aiden has, from being an Alter Boy to having a favorite Saint that he relates to, to the struggles he has with his sexuality because of what he believes his religion says about LGBTQIA people. It’s a really fine line that Curato walks in that he definitely condemns the bigotry of those who may practice the religion, but never points fingers at the religion itself, nor does he say that the religion is ‘bad’ in this situation. I think that it would be easy to either condemn the religion as a whole, or to let it and all of its adherents off. but Curato finds a balance in the middle, and it works very well, and makes some of the moments near the end of the story all the more heartbreaking and powerful.

Along with those aspects, Curato also has a great author’s note in the back, as well as a list of resources for kids who may be dealign with the same things that Aiden is dealing with. I love it when books do this, and it feels like a really great resource to have in this story in particular.

And finally, the art work. LOVED it. It’s black and white, but there are splashes of color, specifically those of reds, oranges, and yellows. All of those work for passion, for fire, for anger, for love, and it makes the moments they are used pop and all the more powerful.

“Flamer” is a bittersweet and hopeful graphic novel that I hope people get in kids hands. You never know who is going to need a story like this.

Rating 8: Evocative, emotional, and necessary reading, “Flamer” is a touching and hopeful story about learning to love and accept yourself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flamer” is included on the Goodreads lists “Summer Camp Teens”, and “Guides and Scouts”.

Find “Flamer” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Surrender Your Sons”

45154800Book: “Surrender Your Sons” by Adam Sass

Publishing Info: Flux, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Connor Major’s summer break is turning into a nightmare.

His SAT scores bombed, the old man he delivers meals to died, and when he came out to his religious zealot mother, she had him kidnapped and shipped off to a secluded island. His final destination: Nightlight Ministries, a conversion therapy camp that will be his new home until he “changes.”

But Connor’s troubles are only beginning. At Nightlight, everyone has something to hide from the campers to the “converted” staff and cagey camp director, and it quickly becomes clear that no one is safe. Connor plans to escape and bring the other kidnapped teens with him. But first, he’s exposing the camp’s horrible truths for what they are— and taking this place down. 

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

Let’s give some high praise to the 1990s cult lesbian dramedy “But I’m a Cheerleader” starring literal goddess on Earth Natasha Lyonne. Natasha plays Megan, a naive cheerleader who is sent to a conversion therapy camp because her parents are convinced she’s gay. There the very idea of conversion therapy is lampooned and satirized, and Lyonne is able to discover and accept herself, as well as her eventual love for camp bad girl Graham (played by 90s Goth Queen Clea Duvall). It’s great. It’s very 1990s. It has RuPaul as a counselor. It’s witty and big hearted. It makes fun of conversion therapy and how ridiculous the concept is, and hits that point home hard.

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But I do think that one aspect that gets a little lost in this movie is just how truly horrifying and evil conversion therapy is. Children are traumatized, abused, and tortured because of their sexuality and/or gender identity, and parents willingly send their children to this kind of treatment that can be incredibly damaging. “Surrender Your Sons” by Adam Sass sends conversion therapy to another extreme (though honestly, probably not too unrealistic), and produces both a rightfully horrifying story…. as well as, ultimately, an uplifting one at its heart.

Adam Sass starts this book off with a content warning and contextualization of the content in this book, noting that while it very much is a story of queer pain, he isn’t promoting that kind of thing and is trying to handle it as best he can. Normally these kinds of spoon fed disclaimers rub me the wrong way, as I think that a work should speak for itself and a reader should have their own interpretations, but in the case of “Surrender Your Sons” I think that it’s probably a good idea. The “Bury Your Gays” trope is damaging and all too present, and this book could absolutely be triggering for the intended audience. But heavy and upsetting content is necessary in this tale as our protagonist, Connor Major, is kidnapped and taken to a conversion therapy camp in the Costa Rican jungle. The things that Connor and his ‘campmates’ go through are horrifying, ranging from physical abuse to mental abuse to emotional abuse, it really runs the gamut, and it is a VERY hard and emotional read. It really needs to be hit home that conversion therapy is torture, plain and simple. Connor is a very relatable, realistic, and in some ways incredibly funny main character, and his sharp wit helps make this story a little easier to handle in its unflinching portrayals of conversion therapy. I really loved Connor’s voice, and I also liked how Sass slowly built him up and fleshed him out as his life is thrown into turmoil. It never felt unrealistic or unearned, and his voice still felt true to him as he evolved. I also really appreciated that Sass points out that the act of ‘coming out’ is still very dangerous for some people. Connor is pressured to come out to his religious zealot of a mother by his boyfriend Ario, who says that coming out will set him free. I do think that there is a well intentioned belief that coming out means that you get to speak your truth, and that that in itself is the best thing that you can do for your own happiness. For some people that’s absolutely true. But for people like Connor, coming out puts a target on one’s back, and Sass did a really good job of bringing up how complicated it can be.

And with these themes we also get a well plotted and interesting mystery thriller! Connor soon discovers that the recently deceased man he was doing Meals on Wheels for, Ricky, has a connection to the Nightlight program, and to it’s leader, The Reverend. It never feels like this mystery is tossed in for good measure, as Sass lays out the clues in a deliberate and careful way. As Connor and his fellow campers begin to investigate, the stakes get higher and higher, and they may need to start plotting a revolt and escape not just because they are being tortured for their sexualities and gender identities, but because they may now know too much. Mixed in with the mystery are the backstories of some of the higher ups at the camp, and how some of them were campers there at one point, which therein leads to the very sad reality that sometimes people who suffer from trauma and abuse end up abusing and traumatizing others later in life. Sass is sure to never excuse the actions of these characters, he does grant them a little bit of empathy, and hammers the point that conversion therapy is truly horrendous because of many unforeseen consequences and outcomes even beyond the violent and abusive root of it.

“Surrender Your Sons” is by no means an easy read, but I think that it’s one that brings up very important conversations. After all, conversion therapy, while perhaps falling out of favor, is still legal in many states in the U.S. Hopefully the more light that is shed on the practice, the more states will ban it until it’s no longer legal anywhere.

Rating 8: An emotionally gut wrenching and suspenseful thriller, “Surrender Your Sons” explores the evils of conversion therapy, the dark side of families when they don’t accept their children for being themselves, and the strength we sometimes have to find within ourselves.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Surrender Your Sons” is included on the Goodreads lists “Queer Fiction Set on an Island”, and “2020 YA Books with LGBT Themes”.

Find “Surrender Your Sons” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Girl, Serpent, Thorn”

51182650._sx318_sy475_Book: “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” by Melissa Bashardoust

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, July 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.

As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.

Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming…human or demon. Princess or monster.

Review: Here was another book I requested based mostly on cover lust. But the description itself, particularly the original fairytale-ness of it all, was another sure a attraction. It’s also yet another book that seems to feature siblings, though this one is only from Soraya’s POV, which is a nice change of pace in my reading lately. The story took a few twists and turns that I wasn’t expecting, but most of them turned out for the good, and I enjoyed this read!

Soraya is a forgotten princess. With a power that kills at her touch, she’s spent her life sequestered in shadows, separated from her family, friends, and people. She’s spent her life watching her brother pass all of the milestones that she herself has missed out on. And now it is coming to a head with his marriage to a lost friend from Soraya’s childhood. In unexpected places she begins to find new allies and new pathways, opening doors that she never dreamed possible. Some of them lead into the light, and some further into the dark. Which will she choose?

I ended up really enjoying this book. It was an original fairytale, something I always love, and it took a few unexpected twists and turns as it was told. On top of all of that, it’s a standalone novel. One small criticims there, however, was the story did feel like it had to distinctive arcs that may have been better suited to their own books, making the story into a duology. But even typing that feels wrong as I love standalone books so much and they’re hard to find! It’s kind of a mixed bag thing, here, I guess. The two storylines work well enough, and I don’t feel like either was truly lacking much. Just that as a complete work, it did feel oddly balanced with the first half telling one tale and the second another.

I really liked Soraya herself. She had a great narrative voice, and she was easy to become immediately invested in. This was important as the book took a twist down an antihero path that I hadn’t seen coming from the book description. Looking back now, yeah, it’s kind of there. But it was another nice surprise for me when going through this book. It’s always tough to sell a true antihero story, as often your main character is doing some pretty questionable things and walking a very narrow line. This made the likablity of Soraya’s character incredibly important. It was easy to understand her struggles and even some of her more questionable decisions, especially in the context of the life she had lived prior to this story.

Another surprise for me was that Soraya was a bisexual and the main romance ends up being a f/f one. For the book itself and its story, I really enjoyed this romance. I’ve read a bunch of f/f/ stories recently, and really liked them! Just last week, I reviewed a book by Django Wexler who is known for almost always giving his heroine a female love interest. My problem with it being a surprise here isn’t the book’s fault. It’s the marketing.

Looking over the book description, it’s clear that it’s intentionally deflecting away from using gendered pronouns in places, and then goes out of its way to place interest on the male love interest. The male love interest is a thing, so that’s fine. But there should be mention, clearly, of the female option. I really dislike these type of marketing techniques. It seems clear that its done out of mistrust of one’s audience, and that’s never going to work. Either your reader is game for a f/f romance, in which case readers like me would like to know ahead of time what to expect without having to delve into Goodreads reviews to get basic information like this. Or your reader is not down and once it becomes clear that you tried to hoodwink them with your marketing, they’ll put the book down. It’s bad faith marketing, and we need to get past this.

Overall, I really liked this book. If you’re looking for an original fairytale story with a morally grey main character, this is definitely the book for you!

Rating 8: A great standalone fantasy novel featuring an interesting anti-heroine!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Girl, Serpent, Thorn” is on these Goodreads lists: “2020 YA LGBT+ Sci-Fi/Fantasy” and “Magical Realism.”

Find “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The City We Became”

42074525._sy475_Book: “The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.

But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.

Review: I’ve been a fan of Jemisin’s since years ago when I first read “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.” But my love for her didn’t really set in until after I read the “Broken Earth” trilogy. Those books blew me away with the sheer scope of imagination and dexterity of language that were required to pull off such a feat. With those in mind, I went into this book knowing that if anyone could handle the strange set-up that was offered in the book description, it would be Jemisin. And she definitely does! Sadly, this book didn’t hit quite the same mark as the others of hers that I’ve read, but I suspect much of that is just down to my own reading preferences.

Birth is a painful, messy business. It can be as frightening as it is beautiful. A city’s birth is no different, especially for one such as New York City, a behemoth whose very soul can’t be contained in one vessel. Instead, when things begin to go wrong as NYC strives towards its own new life, five individuals are selected to represent the myriad of faces and lives that make up this one spirit. Together they must become the protectors the city needs and fight off a great evil that threatens this new life.

Even though this book wasn’t the huge hit for me that I was hoping for, there is still a lot to praise it for. As always, Jemisin’s creativity is without bounds. The idea of great cities developing souls is just fantastic, and the book takes that theme and runs with it into some crazy and unexpected places. The strength of writing needed to make some of these completely foreign fantasy elements make sense is mind boggling, and it’s here that Jemisin has always shined. There were a bunch of lines that not only jumped off the page, but more so slammed into my unprepared mind with all the beauty and shock of a firework. It was truly impressive.

Part of my struggle, however, also had to do with the writing. Not so much maybe the writing, but the way that it was so clearly an homage to New York City and the many cultures made up within that huge city. I’ve only visited NYC on one frantic, 24 hour period visit. So I know very little about the actual city itself. And for a book so focused on the heart of this city and the pieces that make it unique and tick, I was often left feeling like I was an outsider looking in. Many of the stronger pieces of writing I could see objectively as great, but I couldn’t connect to personally as it was so clearly talking about a specific place and people that I personally don’t know much about. And, unlike most second world fantasy where all readers are “newbies” learning about a world they don’t understand, this was clearly written to some extent with the idea that readers would know and connect to some of these elements, without the book itself needing to do that extra legwork. So, in this way, some of the mileage of this book might depend on the reader’s own familiarity, and to a lesser extent, interest, in New York City itself.

I also had a hard time feeling truly connected to many of the POV characters. The story starts off quite quickly and doesn’t spend much time laying out many details for readers. In some regards, this is a staple trick of Jemisin’s and one can have faith that the answers will come eventually. They do here as well. But this trick then depends on the reader connecting to and investing in the main characters themselves early on to carry one through until plot details begin to clarify. I’m not sure quite what the problem was here for me. Perhaps there were just too many characters, and combining that with the slow moving pieces of putting the plot together, was just too much.

Jemisin is also well-known for putting diverse characters first and foremost in her books, often strong women of color. And here, too, the cast is diverse across all kinds of lines. But there were also moments where I felt like the message (for lack of a better word) was a bit more hamfisted here than the incredibly powerful observations and mirrors that were held up in her previous works.  Really, it felt in some ways like this entire book was a bigger statement (particularly in response to the Lovecraft stuff that has pervaded SFF for so long) that the author needed to get out into the world.  And that’s a good thing! But it also, again, left it a bit harder for me to fully sink into this book as a reading experience.

Overall, I think this book is incredibly powerful and highlights again the strength of Jemisin’s skill as an author, both in her masterful world-building as well as just the strength of her writing. That this one didn’t really hit home for me could, in part, simply be due to my own lack of knowledge of (or real interest in) NYC itself. But for those with a stronger connection to that city, I’m sure some of these elements in particular will strike a much stronger chord. Fans of Jemisin’s work should definitely still try this out and those looking for an urban fantasy novel that breaks the mold for what urban fantasy typically offers are sure to be intrigued!

Rating 7: Incredibly unique with a widely diverse cast, but it was a bit harder to become invested in than other works by this author.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The City We Became” is on these Goodreads lists: “Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy Releases of 2020” and “SFF Set in Global Cities (No YA).”

Find “The City We Became” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The House in the Cerulean Sea”

45047384._sy475_Book: “The House in the Cerulean Sea” by TJ Klune

Publishing Info: Tor Books, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

Review: Cover art alert! Cover art alert! Yes, again, I selected a book almost completely based on the cover art itself. I’ve never read any of TJ Klune’s work before, though I believe he was largely a self-published author before the break-out into big publishers with this title. I did see a few references to “The Umbrella Academy” thrown around, so that was the last bit of justification I needed for placing a request for a book just because I thought the cover was pretty! But it is! Look at all of those colors! For some reason, the cover art put me in mind of the covers for “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Not a bad thing at all, as I enjoyed that series for the most part. In the end, I did enjoy this book quite a bit.

While not ecstatic about life, Linus Baker is quite content with the solitary existence he’s created for himself. A stable job, a small, cozy house, and, of course his beloved cat and records. But this quiet life is suddenly interrupted when Linus finds himself given a peculiar assignment: to travel to a remote orphanage and evaluate the state of things. Once there, Linus discovers six wondrous, but dangerous, children and their charming caretaker Arthur. As Linus learns more about these wards and Arthur himself, he finds himself more and more drawn to this small family, danger and all.

I’m not typically a fan of contemporary fantasy (though I will concede that that’s a pretty catch-all subgenre so my preferences therein aren’t particularly well-defined), but this book was a great opportunity for me push my comfort levels a bit. And it was a bit of a stretch, as the fantasy elements were fairly low, other than our magical children. But they were delightful enough that the parts of me that was missing world-building and magic systems was satisfied enough.

The comparisons to “The Umbrella Academy” (only watched the Netflix show) is very apt, and, similar to story, this one lives and dies on its characters. The collection of bizarre orphans are where Klune’s work really shines. They were all perfect blends of heart-wrenching and heart-warming, misfits and fitting perfectly together, witty but hiding deep emotions behind their words. The dialogue for these character in particular was quite good, and I found myself really speeding through the book once Linus met up with them.

Linus himself was a solid main character and his slowly built relationship with Arthur and the kids was lovely to explore. There was a lot of exploration around themes of found families, trust, and how we judge those around us. The romance was definitely more on the sweet side, and I would say that the book overall would appeal to a varied range of ages from middle grade to adults (a very good thing, as the cover definitely speaks to a younger audience, I think).

There were a few moments where the story did strike me as trying a bit too hard, just a bit too bizarre for its own good. But readers will have different experiences with this, depending on their preferences for fantasy writing and modes of humor. The book was also a tad longer than I would have liked. Most of it read very quickly, but I felt that there were times when Klune was simply having fun with his characters and the book got away from him a bit. I mean, the characters are a blast, so I can easily understand getting carried away with all of these moments, but it did end up with the book having a bit of a bloated feel. Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and fans of contemporary fantasy, found family stories, and ensemble casts of characters are sure to have a blast!

Rating 7: A bit long, a bit silly at times, but its characters were so heart-warming that they carry it through.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The House on the Cerulean Sea” is a newer book so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Books released in 2020 I’m curious about.”

Find “The House on the Cerulean Sea” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “City of Stone and Silence”

34640582._sy475_Book: “City of Stone and Silence” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, January 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: After surviving the Vile Rot, Isoka, Meroe, and the rest of Soliton’s crew finally arrive at Soliton’s mysterious destination, the Harbor―a city of great stone ziggurats, enshrouded in a ghostly veil of Eddica magic. And they’re not alone.

Royalty, monks, and madmen live in a precarious balance, and by night take shelter from monstrous living corpses. None know how to leave the Harbor, but if Isoka can’t find a way to capture Soliton and return it to the Emperor’s spymaster before a year is up, her sister’s Tori’s life will be forfeit.

But there’s more to Tori’s life back in Kahnzoka than the comfortable luxury Isoka intended for her. By night, she visits the lower wards, risking danger to help run a sanctuary for mage-bloods fleeing the Emperor’s iron fist. When she discovers that Isoka is missing, her search takes her deep in the mires of intrigue and revolution. And she has her own secret―the power of Kindre, the Well of Mind, which can bend others to its will. Though she’s spent her life denying this brutal magic, Tori will use whatever means she has to with Isoka’s fate on the line…

Review: After blowing through the first book in this trilogy in about two days, I immediately nabbed a copy from NetGalley. What a joy to find a new series that you absolutely love and have the second book come out the very month you finish the first! While I think the first book stills ranks ahead of this, I was quite pleased with the direction the series seems to be headed in and the surprises that were in store here!

It seems that the ghost ship, Soliton, has finally reached its port. But answers here are as illusive as they were on the mysterious ship. In a land riddled with the walking dead, Isoka must untangle the complicated history of the ship and its makers if she has any hope of returning to her beloved sister, Tori. Back in her home city, Tori has been getting out and about much more than Isoka knew or would have wanted. She spends much of this time volunteering at a hospital for the poor, but her own street instincts have not been lost or forgotten either. With her eyes constantly on an exit strategy, Tori has been carefully cultivating her own connections. But when the city begins to teeter on the bring of revolt, Tori finds herself thrust into the spotlight in a way that may expose secrets that she’s kept even from her own sister.

The introduction of Tori was quite the shift for this book, with the chapters now alternating between the two sisters and their experiences. I enjoyed the addition of this new character quite a lot, though I will also admit that Isoka was still by far my favorite character and I found her story here the more intriguing of the two. But it’s a brave choice to make, and I think it was pulled off well. Tori’s story lays a lot of groundwork for the final confrontation in the third book and brings some complicated themes into a story that, before, was pretty solidly a fun adventure fantasy.

Isoka is still as brilliant as ever. Brave, straight-forward, but with a hard shell that she is only beginning to shed. In the first book we saw her confront her own ability to care for others, both in the immediate and personal, as well as in the whole, as she leads the other Soliton residents to the last remaining safe space on the ship. In this book, she confronts the challenge of lasting leadership when the goal is not so obvious or so black and white in what needs to be done to achieve it. More than anything, she learns what it means to trust others to help her. She’s just the sort of prickly, gruff, super competent hero I like.

The mystery of the port of Soliton is also incredibly intriguing. In the first book, we really only scraped the surface of the ghost ship, knowing just enough to know that we didn’t know anything. This book takes that one ship and now explodes it out to an entire lost city with mysteries that reach back thousands of years. There are answers here to more than just the strange ship and its solitary mission to collected young people with access to magical Wells. There were a lot a lot of legitimately creepy elements. The crabs from the first book read like the type of exciting monsters that one finds in Japanese monster flicks. But here an element of horror is painted over top it all. And I’ll just say this…dinosaurs. Take from that what you will.

As I said above, while I still enjoyed the adventure of Isoka’s story and her own character arc best, Tori was overall an excellent addition. It becomes clear early on that Tori’s own experiences of life on the street were not so effectively wiped away as Isoka had hoped. But, being a very different girl than Isoka with very different gifts, Tori has taken her own route in building up a life for herself, one that is still always prepared for the worst. Through her story, we get a much deeper look into the geo-political state of the Empire Isoka left behind. And the story of growing unrest, a tipping point, and the uprising of the common people against an Empire that has pushed too far is very compelling.

Tori’s own role in this revolution was a very interesting contrast to Isoka. Both have been thrust into leadership roles that they feel ill equipped to manage. Both have incredible power that others can both admire and fear (though Tori’s is kept under wraps from those around her for much of the book). The classic “with great power come great responsibility” motif is explored thoroughly from both angles. But the book takes an interesting approach to the idea. The power itself isn’t in question, it’s more what does responsibility actually look like when one has power? The story explores how power can bring out both the best and worst of people. And that similar experiences of having power, and more importantly here, responsibility thrust upon a person can have very different outcomes, depending on the person. Power alone does not good or evil make.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this sequel. Tori was a fantastic addition, adding new themes into the story as well as creating more shades of grey to the ones already being covered. The world-building and magical history seemed to multiply in this book, and what had been contained to a strange ship, expands out to provide insights into the entire world and magical system itself. And, of course, I love Isoka. I have no filter for this type of powerful, yet emotionally walled off, heroines it seems. If you enjoyed the first book, be ready to kick into the next gear!

Rating 8: A fantastic second outing that highlights the author’s meticulous story-telling techniques, leaving so many goodies and reveals for the second book that one can only wonder at what will come in the third!

Reader’s Advisory:

“City of Stone and Silence” is a newer title so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2020.”

Find “City of Stone and Silence” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Ship of Smoke and Steel”

34618380Book: “Ship of Smoke and Steel” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka comes to collect when there’s money owing. When her ability to access the Well of Combat is discovered by the Empire—an ability she should have declared and placed at His Imperial Majesty’s service—she’s sent on an impossible mission: steal Soliton, a legendary ghost ship—a ship from which no one has ever returned. If she fails, her sister’s life is forfeit.

Review: Our bookclub has been doing a Secret Santa book exchange for the last several years (have we mentioned how awesome our bookclub is recently??). It’s great because A.)more books! and B.) having librarians as friends means you’re sure to get a great new read that has been careful tailored to your own reading preferences. I’d seen the sequel for this book coming up on “most anticipated” lists for a few months now and am not sure how I missed this first one when it came out last year. But this has now been rectified, and I’m now halfway through said sequel. So, spoiler alert, I loved this book.

Reigning as a crime lord on the streets of Kahnzoka may not be an ideal life, but it’s a living, and one that Isoka is particularly skilled at. With her Well of Combat, she can be as brutal as she is efficient. But behind her cold exterior, her true purpose is one of love, the protection and future of her beloved younger sister Tori. But it all goes awry when she is captured and sentenced to an almost sure death on the mythical ship Soliton. There, she realizes that what once had seemed only a fable is all too real, and the powers that had made her almost legendary on the streets may be only a drop in the bucket against the new foes that await her.

I’ve only read one other book by Wexler, a military fantasy fiction novel which I quite enjoyed. This was the author’s first foray into YA fantasy fiction, and I have to say, I think this might be the key to it. Having been an adult fantasy author first, there seems a decent chance that Wexler was less influenced by the pervasive YA tropes that all too often undercut many potentially good YA fantasies these days. This book has all of the originality, spunk, diversity and grimness that one would find in an adult novel. The only thing that makes it YA is the age of our main characters. And that’s what makes it so good.

Isoka may be a teen, but she is completely believable as young woman who grew up on the streets and whose sense of morality and survival have been worn down to just the basics. This book doesn’t shy away from the grim reality that would take over a character who has had to fight for her own, and her much younger sister’s, very survival almost from infancy. Isoka is a bringer of death, and while over the course of this book she learns to take others under her wing as well, her lack of angst over the harshness of her life was incredibly refreshing. She may not be a “good” person by the standards a modern individual would set, but she’s a survivor and doesn’t apologize for doing what she thinks is necessary to protect those she loves.

The magic system was also very compelling. It’s simple enough to be understood easily, with a variety of Wells that users can pull from that grant them different abilities. But as the story progresses, we learn that not all is fully understood about these Wells. And even by the end of the story, there are mysteries still to be unraveled here. Isoka’s own power, the Well of Combat, is an excellent choice for our main character. The action is riveting, feeling almost cinematic as Isoka battles monstrous beasts with her twin power blades and armor. There are also those with powers such as speed, fire, and shadow, and the greater battle scenes paint an epic-feeling picture of these incredible individuals battling alongside one another.

Most of the action takes place on board the mysterious ship Soliton. I don’t want to spoil anything, as discovering the horrors and wonders of this ship was half the fun of the book. Just as you feel you understand one layer of this creepy place, another unfolds. Again, like the magic system itself, by the end of the book the reader feels as if they have only scraped the surface of what is really going on behind this secretive ship.

This was an excellent read. I blew through it in only two days. It’s a fast read, full of action and creepy fantasy elements. There’s also a lovely romance between Isoka and her friend Meroe, a girl with her own barely understood abilities. I already have the second book loaded up on my Kindle, so expect a review for that one up soon. If you’re looking for a fun new fantasy series, definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: Epic, action-packed, and best of all, the start of what promises to be an exciting trilogy!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ship of Smoke and Steel” is on these Goodreads lists: “2019 Queer SFF” and “Best Fantasy 2019.”

Find “Ship of Smoke and Steel” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Reverie”

46299614Book: “Reverie” by Ryan La Sala

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, December 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: All Kane Montgomery knows for certain is that the police found him half-dead in the river. He can’t remember how he got there, what happened after, and why his life seems so different now. And it’s not just Kane who’s different, the world feels off, reality itself seems different.

As Kane pieces together clues, three almost-strangers claim to be his friends and the only people who can truly tell him what’s going on. But as he and the others are dragged into unimaginable worlds that materialize out of nowhere—the gym warps into a subterranean temple, a historical home nearby blooms into a Victorian romance rife with scandal and sorcery—Kane realizes that nothing in his life is an accident. And when a sinister force threatens to alter reality for good, they will have to do everything they can to stop it before it unravels everything they know.

Review: Another gorgeous cover, another intriguing book description! To be honest, I really had very little to go on when requesting this book. Part of it may have spoken to my withdrawals from “The Starless Sea” with some of the similar-sounding descriptions of mystical worlds each with their own story. December always seems to be a bit thin in the pickings, too, so anything that sparks interest is usually a go around now. Alas, even no expectations were too many for this book.

Kane knows very little about himself or his life. Found half dead on the side of a river, he only feels a sense of…difference. About him?About the world? About the mystery behind what happened to him? So when three others show up claiming to be his friends, he jumps at the opportunity to learn more. But he quickly realizes that this mystery is much greater than a near-drowning. Now, worlds are opening in the middle of the ordinary places in the world, each with their own stories and histories. How does his own experience connect with these mysteries? And is that even the biggest problem Kane faces now?

Ah, too bad. Another story that falls into the too simple and too common box of “missed potential.” These types of books are almost the hardest to review because there is nothing overtly wrong or offensive about the book, and, more often than not, they still have good qualities that hold them together. But by the final page, I’m left with an overwhelming sense of indifference and a fixation on the hours spent reading this book instead of some other book.

Amnesia stories, to start with, are very hard to pull off. The main character of the story is a necessary blank, having no point of reference of history, prior relationships, ongoing emotional struggles to draw upon. This leaves their observations and reactions feeling hollow. It’s hard to feel connected to a character who isn’t connected himself. This is the problem with Kane in a big way. Through the entire book, I just never really cared about him. He was instead mostly just a blank slate around which to build this story and magical world.

The world-building and writing was both a hit and a miss for me as well. On one hand, several of the descriptions of events and places were beautiful and new. But on the other hand, they weren’t the type of descriptions that read easily. I’m not sure how to put my finger on this. But I found myself having to re-read several lines to really put together how a particular metaphor was being used or what was being described. Perhaps having just read “Starless Sea” made this particular misstep hit home a bit harder than it would have at other times. That book, too, used very unique language to describe strange and new imagery. But there, somehow, the words flowed in a way that wasn’t distracting and didn’t throw me out of the story quite as badly as a similar style did here.

I also struggled to fully understand the rules of the world. How exactly do reveries work? What are their boundaries? There was definitely an interesting idea to be found here, but between the blank that was Kane and the distracting writing, I was already too out of this story to be able to turn my brain off and just go with the flow.

All of that being said, I did like Kane’s love interest, and in many ways, he had a lot more character building given to him than Kane himself did. And, while the writing style did kick me out of the flow of things every once in a while, there were also some legitimately lovely pieces of word play. But, in the end, my main takeaway was that this book didn’t accomplish all that it set out to. It was too bad. Others, however, might still enjoy this story. If you’re looking for a unique, LGBT fantasy, this does do well on all of those counts. Just not really my cup of tea, I guess.

Rating 6: Nothing terrible, but amnesia strikes again at taking down its main character and the unique word play hurts the flow of the story more often than it helps.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Reverie” is on these Goodreads lists: “2020 Queer Sci-Fi Fantasy” and “Oooh Shiny! December 2019.”

Find “Reverie” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Starless Sea”

43575115._sy475_Book: “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues–a bee, a key, and a sword–that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library, hidden far below the surface of the earth.

What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians–it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also those who are intent on its destruction.

Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly-soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose–in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

Review: I had to do a double-take when I saw this book pop up on Edelweiss+. I was like, “I know that author! But…but is she finally publishing something new??” It’s been several years since “The Night Circus” was published. Long enough that I look fondly at the book on my shelf but hadn’t really thought to check up again on what the author was doing. This is not a complaint about the time taken between books. Some authors can pump them out seemingly one after another. But as it stands, Morgenstern can take all the time she wants if it means we keep seeing books like “The Night Circus” and now the wonder that is “The Starless Sea.”

Once upon a time there was a book. And in that book were stories. And in those stories were characters reading books. Too, there were doors. And through those doors more books, and characters reading those books. The story winds in and out, but this one begins with Zachary, a college graduate who once saw a door but chose not to open it. A simple moment, seemingly, until he discovers that same moment described in detail in a book he discovers in the library while conducting research. But his is only one among many stories contained with this book’s pages. And as he searches for answers, he finds that through that door that he didn’t take are a million other doors just waiting to be opened.

Books, authors, and readers have a strange, self-celebrating relationship. Readers love books. Some readers love them so much that they go out and write their own. Often about how much they love books. Other readers find those books and gain all the more pleasure from reading a book about characters who love reading books. And some readers go on to be librarians who like nothing more than stocking their shelves with books, especially those books that wax poetic about a love for reading, libraries, and, of course, books themselves. It’s all very “snake eating its own tail,” but in the best of ways possible. All of this to say: “The Starless Sea” is one of the most beautiful love letters to stories and books that I have ever read.

The book starts off slowly, with several seemingly unconnected stories coming one after another to the point that the reader may start to question whether they are reading a collection of tales or a novel. But soon enough Zachary’s story starts to come together and the pieces oh, so slowly begin to fall into place. It takes the entire book to get a full picture of what Morgenstern has accomplished here, which makes it all the more challenging to review. This is a nested-doll of a story and even now I feel that I might have missed some clues here and there.

The world itself is intricate, lush, and a bit spooky around the edges. Like Hogwarts is to many of us, the Starless Sea and its vast libraries are to readers. What reader doesn’t wish to live Zachary’s story? To open a door and find oneself part of a story? And if not that, I want to go there just to cozy up with the millions of books and the hundreds of cats wandering around (I mean, honestly, it’s like she wrote this book for me). There are details galore and half of the fun is simply wandering into the next scene alongside Zachary to see what marvels lay beneath the next. There are just enough strings holding it all together to make it feel connected and approachable. But I was still caught off guard again and again by the directions the story took in its many twists and turns.

There are two love stories at the heart of this book. One, a love that spans centuries, a story that keeps looking for its ending. And the other is Zachary’s. Each is beautiful in its way, one highlighting the testament of love over time and the other the connections that can be formed more quickly but still inspire the greatest of undertakings on each other’s behalf. Each was lovely in its own way, though given Zachary’s role in this book, his stood out all the more.

Like “The Night Circus,” this book highlights just how well-matched Morgenstern’s creativity is with her stylistic writing. In another author’s hands, some of these scenes could have come off as pretentious or grandiose, but her simple, yet delicate, manner of laying down words on a page makes them seem like just more magic to be discovered. As I said, the book builds slowly, and even towards the end when the action begins to pick up, Morgenstern still devotes a decent amount of page time to her descriptive settings and poetic observations. Readers who enjoyed her previous book will be pleased to see her talents put to work in another such story. Those looking for a faster-paced story might struggle a bit, however.

So close to the end of the year and with my “Top 10” on the mind, this was an instant winner for me. I think I would even go so far as to say that I preferred this book to “The Night Circus.” In many ways, that book now seems as if it was a primer, or simply Morgenstern testing the water, as she prepared for the tour de force that is “The Starless Sea.”

Rating 10: A love letter to stories and books that makes you wish for nothing more than to visit the Starless Sea yourself.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Starless Sea” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Books with Underground Setting” and “Scifi/Fantasy for when you are feeling down.”

Find “The Starless Sea” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”

22733729Book: “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

Publishing Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, July 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. An introspective young woman who learned early to keep to herself, she’s never met anyone remotely like the ship’s diverse crew, including Sissix, the exotic reptilian pilot, chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running, and Ashby, their noble captain.

Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic and crazy—exactly what Rosemary wants. It’s also about to get extremely dangerous when the crew is offered the job of a lifetime. Tunneling wormholes through space to a distant planet is definitely lucrative and will keep them comfortable for years. But risking her life wasn’t part of the plan. In the far reaches of deep space, the tiny Wayfarer crew will confront a host of unexpected mishaps and thrilling adventures that force them to depend on each other. To survive, Rosemary’s got to learn how to rely on this assortment of oddballs—an experience that teaches her about love and trust, and that having a family isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the universe.

Review:  One of my librarian friends recommended this book a few years ago, so I had dutifully added it to my TBR list. And there it sat. But recently I was finding myself in the mood of a sci fi read, realizing I hadn’t read and reviewed a book in that genre for quite a while, and while browsing, there it was! I was able to nab an audiobook copy from the library, and I was off!

Rosemary is running from her past. And what better place to forget where she came from than a ship that travels to the outer reaches of space itself. Staffed by an odd assortment of crew made up of a diverse species and peoples, Rosemary soon learns that life on this ship is not like ordinary space travel. There is more danger to be sure, but she also finds that through these adventures and close calls, the bonds that form between this oddball family can be stronger than anything she’s known before.

I’ll admit to having a hard time with this book, but it’s for a reason that is pretty new to me. For all that every book is different and each reading experience offers something new, I can definitely point to some typical things that throw me out of a story: nonsense characters, love triangles, predictable plots trying to be pretentious. But this was a new one for me. This book was just too…nice. Obviously, with a complaint like that, there are also a lot of pros to talk about, too, so let me cover those first before trying to explain myself.

First things first, the story largely depends on its cast of characters that make up the crew. I appreciated the diversity that the author brought to this group. Not only did she create original alien species who are all physically unique from humans, but they each had distinct cultures with differing approaches to communication, relationships, food, and many other aspects of life. One of the more interesting aspects of the book was exploring the ins and outs of each of these distinct characters and learning more about how their species differs from humanity. Several of them were simply entertaining, with quippy dialogue and fun interactions. However, these fun characters did ultimately end up washing out Rosemary herself. She quickly felt more like the readers point of entrance into the story and very little else.

The problems with the “niceness” start here, too. In some ways, this book reminds me of what “Star Trek” set out to do: to show an idealized future where most of humanity’s internal conflict has been set to rest and exploration and understanding are the sole mission. Here, while humanity as a whole does not have its act together, the crew largely does. It’s a weird thing to complain about, but there simply wasn’t enough conflict. I don’t need tons of drama or in-fighting or anything, but the story seemed to lack tension.

The crew fly in and out of a variety of adventures, and while some aspects of these were thrilling enough on their own, the crew’s seemingly perfect “woke” attitude about it all became almost tiring. It was hard to continue to read them all as fully realized characters when there were very few, if any, flaws in sight. This leaves the characters with very few emotional arcs of their own. The quippy-ness, while fun at the beginning, quickly began to feel cutesy and disingenuous.

This book has been compared to “Firefly” and I would add “Star Trek” to that mix. But what both of those shows got right was that these tight knit families of crew members were pulled together in spite of their ongoing flaws, not because they simply didn’t have any. Like I said, it’s a weird complaint. In the end, I guess I was just looking for a bit more of a serious sci-fi read and this one was too light for my own taste. Readers who want a fun, beach-read-style sci-fi story might enjoy this more.

Rating 6: While fun enough at times, there simply wasn’t enough real conflict or tension to really sink my teeth into the book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” is on these Goodreads lists: “Optimistic Space Scifi” and “Alien Diplomacy and Interspecies Friendship.”

Find “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” at your library using WorldCat!