Book Review: Shatter the Sky

shatter the skyShatter the Sky
by Rebecca Kim Wells
Young Adult / Fantasy
294 pages
Published July 2019

I saw this described as “angry bisexual dragon riders” and while I didn’t know if the bisexual applied to the dragons or to the riders, I really didn’t care. Either way, I NEEDED THIS.

It’s fantastic. It’s a -little- simplistic, but I loved it anyway. Maren loves her girlfriend, Kaia, and when Kaia is abducted by the emperor’s prophetic servants to be inducted into their ranks, she gets mad. She would have been happy to live a quiet life with Kaia, but instead our girl’s going to BURN IT ALL DOWN. You’d think prophets could avoid this drastic misstep, but then we wouldn’t have a book!

Maren is biracial; her father is from down the mountain, from a more accepted ethnicity, while her mother is Verran. Verrans used to be dragon riders, but the emperor stole their dragons and refuses to let any Verrans near them for fear the dragons will go back to them. Maren is able to disguise herself as Zefedi, her father’s ethnicity, to get work in the fortress where dragons are hatched and trained. Her Verran ancestry gives her some advantages with working with the dragons, though.

There’s a bit of a love triangle, though it could turn into a polyamorous situation. I’m obviously hoping for the latter, but we’ll have to wait for the second book, Storm the Earth, to find out.

Sexuality in this book was very matter-of-fact – Kaia has two moms, absolutely no one has a problem with two women being together. Lovers/spouses are called Heartmates, rather than anything gender-specific. I love it so much when fantasy books do this! And Heartmates is a BEAUTIFUL term that I adore.

I really enjoyed Maren rediscovering dragon lore – I find it a little unbelievable that the Verrans didn’t keep some secrets passed around under the nose of the emperor, but I suppose even if they did, that doesn’t mean some random village girl would know about it. So Maren has to learn it all for herself.

To sum up: LOVE this book. Cannot WAIT for the sequel!

From the cover of Shatter the Sky:

Raised among the ruins of a conquered mountain nation, Maren dreams only of sharing a quiet life with her girlfriend Kaia – until the day Kaia is abducted by the Aurati, prophetic agents of the emperor, and forced to join their ranks. Desperate to save her, Maren hatches a plan to steal one of the emperor’s coveted dragons and storm the Aurati stronghold.

If Maren is to have any hope of succeeding, she must become an apprentice to the Aromatory – the emperor’s mysterious dragon trainer. But Maren is unprepared for the dangerous secrets she uncovers: rumors of a lost prince, a brewing rebellion, and a prophecy that threatens to shatter the empire itself. Not to mention the strange dreams she’s been having about a beast deep underground . . . .

With time running out, can Maren survive long enough to rescue Kaia from impending death? Or could it be that Maren is destined for something greater than she could have ever imagined?

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Book Review: New Suns

new sunsNew Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color
Edited by Nisi Shawl
Short stories / Sci-Fi / Fantasy
279 pages
Published March 2019

This was quite the collection! I disagree with the cover description’s use of “unexpected brilliance” – I think that’s actually slightly insulting, and possibly racist. (Who wrote that line?!) I fully expected the brilliance I got, and was very pleased with it!

From the forward by Levar Burton, through stories by Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Indigenous authors, all the way to the Afterword from Nisi Shawl, this was an amazing, fascinating, mind-blowing book. Rebecca Roanhorse is probably the most well-known of the authors, thanks to Trail of Lightning, but Indrapramit Das wrote The Devourers, which I’ve heard about and have on my Kindle but have not yet read, and Steven Barnes is married to another author I’ve read, Tananarive Due. Silvia Moreno-Garcia wrote the recently released Gods of Jade and Shadow, which I picked up through Book of the Month in July but have again, not yet read. Library books keep taking priority over things I own!

Going through the biographies in the back of the book makes me want to add EVERYTHING to my TBR – with titles like The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, Will Do Magic For Small Change, and The Beast With Nine Billion Feet, how could I not?!

Back to the book itself, though! There are 17 stories in this book, ranging from 5 pages to 20-30 pages. I think my favorite was “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh, about an Asian mermaid, but the one just before it, “Burn the Ships,” about indigenous South Americans fighting back with blood magic against Spaniards, was also amazing. (Written by Alberto Yáñez.) Really all of the stories are spell-binding, though. And the variety is VAST. From a story retelling The Emperor’s New Clothes, in three variations, to Earth becoming a tourist destination for galactics (aliens), to a story imagining what we would be like with computers in our heads to keep us from having destructive emotions, these are wildly imaginative and thought-provoking.

I love reading short story anthologies because they always introduce me to new authors I want to read more of, which this book unequivocally did. I also have more reason to read Gods of Jade and Shadow now!

This should be on the reading list of every spec fic fan. I’m going to leave you with the quote that begins the book and inspired the title, from one of the mothers of modern science fiction, Octavia Butler:

“There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.”

From the cover of New Suns:

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color showcases emerging and seasoned writers of many races telling stories filled with shocking delights, powerful visions of the familiar made strange. Between this book’s covers burn tales of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and their indefinable overlappings. These are authors aware of our many possible pasts and futures, authors freed of stereotypes and cliches, ready to dazzle you with their daring genius.

Unexpected brilliance shines forth from every page.

Book Review: Hollow Kingdom

Hollow KingdomHollow Kingdom
by Kira Jane Buxton
Apocalyptic Fiction
308 pages
Published August 2019

As a rule, I prefer my apocalypse fiction sans zombies. Which is a little odd, given how much I love my lady necromancer books. But something about uncontrolled hordes of zombies gives me nightmares, almost every time.

Hollow Kingdom is a rare exception. In a way, that’s logical; this is NOT your average zombie apocalypse story! For one, it’s told from the viewpoint of a crow. While it’s possible he could be killed by a zombie, he’s not going to get turned into one. As they explain in the book, this is an evolutionary change, not a contagious virus-like change. Which is another way in which it’s different than normal zombies. The book also focuses on S.T. (it’s short for Shit Turd!) and his bloodhound companion, Dennis, trying to survive in the new world, rather than your average survivors-fighting-off-zombies and trying not to get turned themselves.

It also might just be the sardonic humor with which S.T. views the world. He calls humans “MoFos” because that’s what his owner called other humans. Most other animals call them Hollows because they can’t access the Aura – a kind of communication network that animals can tap into to talk to one another.

S.T. is an incredible character, straddling the human and animal worlds and not quite belonging in either. He flits across Seattle, searching for answers to what has befallen the MoFos, hitting various popular landmarks (my Friday 56 addresses his visit to Pike Place Market!) and encountering a huge variety of animals in his journey. Every animal has their own personality; it’s incredibly well done.

The author attempts world-building; there are a couple of seemingly random, very brief chapters detailing the experiences of other animals in wildly different locations, but the book is mostly based in Seattle with S.T. and his friends. It only detracts from the story a very minor amount; the characterization of S.T., Dennis, Kraai, Ghubari, and many others are where the story shines.

I honestly loved this book. I picked it up despite the plotline, because it was told from the viewpoint of a crow, and I love crows. I’m so glad I did, because this is really, really excellent, and there are so few zombie stories I will say that about!

From the cover of Hollow Kingdom:

S.T., a domesticated crow, is a bird of simple pleasures. He spends his days hanging out with his owner, Big Jim; avoiding the slobbering affection of Big Jim’s loyal but dim-witted dog, Dennis; trading insults with Seattle’s wild crows; binge-watching nature documentaries; and binge-eating the finest food humankind has to offer: Cheetos®.

Then, on a beautiful summer evening, Big Jim’s eyeball falls out of his head, and S.T. starts to feel like something isn’t quite right. When his tried-and-true remedies – from beak-delivered beer to an inventive cocktail of stolen pharmacy drugs – fail to bring Big Jim back to health, S.T. is left with no choice but to abandon his old life and venture out with his trusty steed, Dennis, to find a cure.

Outside the safety of his home, the city of Seattle is a wild and frightening new world. Big Jim’s neighbors, victims of the same mysterious malady, are now devouring everything warm-blooded in their path, and the once orderly suburbs have become feral jungles. Meanwhile, local wildlife is abuzz with cryptic rumors, which the cowardly S.T. has no choice but to follow if he wants to rescue the only world he knows from certain destruction.

Brimming with hope and heart, this irrepressible debut introduces humanity’s improbable hero in the form of a foulmouthed crow with a moderate-to-severe junk food addiction, who believes that – despite all its flaws – the world is worth saving.

Book Review: Well Met

well metWell Met
by Jen DeLuca
Contemporary Romance
319 pages
Publishing September 3, 2019

I received Well Met through Book of the Month, so I was able to read it before the general release date. I actually read it on the second day of the Maryland Renaissance Festival, while my husband was out working at a friend’s booth. That turned out to be a bad idea, as the book perfectly captures the feeling of Fair and made me miss my husband and friends at Fair even more! I’m looking forward to Monday, when we’ll both be working the booth on Labor Day!

BUT THIS BOOK.

Well Met is an adorable, hilarious enemies-to-lovers romance. Emily has dropped her entire life (which wasn’t much, after her boyfriend dumped her and kicked her out of the apartment) to move to Willow Creek and help her sister, who was recently in a severe car accident. When she takes her niece to sign up as a volunteer for the local Ren Faire, she discovers minors can only volunteer if they have an adult volunteering with them. Given that her sister is in no shape to leave the house, let alone be at a Ren Faire, she volunteers so her niece can participate. Which brings us to Simon.

Simon is the head of the Faire. It was started by his brother, but the responsibility has fallen to him, and he takes it…a little too seriously. Through a series of misunderstandings (because that’s always the case in romances!) the two butt heads, argue, and generally think each other unpleasant, but everything changes when the costumes go on and Faire begins.

I adored Emily. I thought Simon was a little obtuse, and both of them a little too stubborn, and everything moved a little too fast, but when everything needs to be crammed into 300 pages, that’s going to happen. The book perfectly captures the spirit of Faire; from the jubilation, fun, and adrenaline at the start of a Faire day to the utter exhaustion at the end of the day and the relief of washing the Faire dirt off.

I was greatly amused to see MY home Fair mentioned, while discussing the size of the Willow Creek Fair:

“It’s a fund-raiser, sure, but it’s grown over the years into a pretty big event. We have talent coming from all over the country to perform. It’s not one of the big Faires by any means – we certainly have nothing on the Maryland Renaissance Festival.”

Aside from the romance feeling a little rushed (which may just be my demisexuality coming through) this book was an absolute delight, from start to finish. If you enjoy Ren Faires and Shakespeare, you should pick this up when it comes out. It’s great. (And if you’re local, come out to the Maryland Renaissance Festival!)

From the cover of Well Met:

A laugh-out-loud romantic comedy debut where a little flirtation between sworn enemies proves that all is faire in love and war.

Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, to help her sister, but who could have anticipated getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance faire? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The Faire is Simon’s family legacy, and he makes it clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life, her oddball Shakespeare conspiracy theories, or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the Faire grounds he  becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

This summer was only supposed to be a pit stop for Emily, but now she can’t shake the fantasy of calling Willow Creek – and Simon – home.

Book Review: Love from A to Z

love from a to zLove from A to Z
by S. K. Ali
Young Adult / Romance
342 pages
Published April 2019

I read S. K. Ali’s first book, Saints and Misfits, and quite enjoyed it, so I knew I’d be picking this one up eventually. I finally did – and this just solidifies S. K. Ali as a MUST READ author for me. Because this was excellent.

I complained in my last review that while the book was good, it was fluffy contemporary fiction, which is not where my current tastes lie. THIS is a much better book for me. While it’s still contemporary fiction, it has a heavier romance line, and it deals with issues of racism, islamophobia, chronic illness, and casualties of war.

It’s written in journal form, alternating between the journals of Adam and Zayneb. (The A to Z of the title!) Both of them were inspired to keep journals of “Marvels” and “Oddities,” individually, when they ran across The Marvels of Creation and the Oddities of Existence, an ancient manuscript in an Islamic museum. Adam sees Zayneb’s journal when they’re sitting near each other in an airport, which is what prompts their first meeting.

I really loved this book, and I adore Zayneb. She’s passionate and angry about injustice. Her ongoing feud with an islamophobic teacher drives her and her friends to take action, and I loved how her aunt encouraged her, but also encouraged her to be smart about it.

Zayneb wears a hijab, and the book actually goes into some detail on her feelings about it – who’s allowed to see her without it, what she does to make a makeshift hijab if she needs one unexpectedly, her daydreams about the special man who will get to see her hair. It was pretty special to get an inside look at hijab wearing; it’s such a personal thing.

Adam has just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the disease that killed his mother, so there’s a lot of struggling to come to terms with that and what it means for his long-term health.

Some things, like hijab-wearing, get explained to the reader, but other things, like the three bits of Arabic script, the greetings, and a passage where Zayneb “takes a deep breath and says bismallah” are not. This is where I’m glad my husband was an Arabic linguist in the military, because they taught him a lot of the culture, as well. So now I know the Arabic script, repeated a few times in the book, all basically says “God Willing,” a standard Arabic phrase. I knew the greetings, but it was the bismallah that stumped me, so I asked him about it.

“Saying bismallah” is saying the name of God. It’s used as a beginning for many things, whether those are nice things, or difficult things, so in this case Zayneb was saying it before she started a difficult conversation with her mother. The book doesn’t explain it; it doesn’t need to, to understand the narrative, but I always enjoy learning the cultural underpinnings of things like this.

The afterword of the book is worth reading, as well. Ali explains that all of the discriminatory acts in the book were taken from real experiences; even the islamophobic teacher was taken from an incident three years ago in Toronto. Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me at all.

Final verdict – this book is great. It’s going on my Best of 2019 list. It covers all kinds of important topics and holds a wealth of diversity, all wrapped around a sweet romance. I’ll be watching for more books by S. K. Ali, because she is wildly talented.

From the cover of Love from A to Z:

A Marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes – because they make french fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.

An Oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how “bad” Muslims are.

But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry.

When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break. Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, “nicer” version of herself in a place where no one knows her.

Then her path crosses with Adam’s.

Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam has stopped going to classes, intent instead on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister. 

Adam is also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father.

Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals. 

Until a marvel and an oddity occurs . . . .

Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting.

Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting. 

Book Review: The Way You Make Me Feel

the way you make me feelThe Way You Make Me Feel
by Maurene Goo
Young Adult
323 pages
Published 2018

I liked this book but I wish I hadn’t read it.

Yeah, that’s an odd sentence, isn’t it? The Way You Make Me Feel is a funny, well-written book about a teenager’s summer. She struggles with her parents, their long-ago divorce, authority, consequences for her own actions, and starting to take things seriously. It is a great, fluffy little book with fantastic minority representation.

The fact that I wish I hadn’t spent the time to read it is entirely indicative of where MY reading tastes are and has nothing to do with the book. Which makes this a difficult review to write! My tastes generally lie in fantasy, fiction that deals with heavy topics, or nonfiction. I don’t tend to read contemporary fiction that doesn’t have a message. (Unless it’s guilty pleasure romances.) So I feel like my time could have been better spent on another book, I suppose? But this book is important in its own way.

Between the Korean-Brazilian main character, her black nemesis-turned-friend, and her Chinese-American love interest, there’s a lot of minority representation in this book, and they deserve happy, fluffy books. (There’s also a gay side character.) It’s something I’ve seen talked about a lot – minority authors sometimes feel pressured to address issues of discrimination, immigration, and the like in their books – but they also need books where their characters are just average people.

So the book sits in an odd in-between place for me. It is well-written and a fun book to read. I enjoyed the story. But I have so many books on my TBR right now that I wish I’d spent the time on something more substantial or closer to my personal tastes. For actual young adults – especially any of the identities represented by the book – it would be an excellent summer read.

From the cover of The Way You Make Me Feel:

Sixteen-year-old Clara Shin doesn’t take life too seriously, but when she pushes one joke too far, her dad sentences her to a summer working on his food truck, the KoBra. Clara was supposed to go on vacation to Tulum to visit her social media-influencer mom; she was supposed to spend lazy days at the pool with her buddies. Being stuck in a sweaty Korean-Brazilian food truck all day, every day? Worse still, working alongside her nemesis, Rose Carver? Not the carefree summer Clara had imagined.

But as time goes on, it turns out that maybe Rose isn’t so bad. Maybe the boy named Hamlet (yes, Hamlet) who’s crushing on Clara is pretty cute. Maybe Clara actually feels invested in her dad’s business. What if taking this summer seriously means that Clara has to leave her old self behind?

With her signature warmth and humor, Maurene Goo delivers a relatable story of falling in love and finding yourself in the places you’d never thought to look.