Book Review: The Dreaming Stars

the dreaming starsThe Dreaming Stars
by Tim Pratt
Science Fiction
384 pages
Published September 2018

I don’t read a lot of hard sci-fi. It’s just not where my interests lie. But every once in a while, I do enjoy a good space opera. Firefly/Serenity (before I learned about the Confederate connection, dammit), Dark Matter, even the occasional episode of The Expanse. Tim Pratt has written a fantastic space opera in his Axiom series. (The Forbidden Stars should be coming out sometime in 2019.) The story started with The Wrong Stars and continues here.

First, the diversity is fantastic. The crew runs the gamut of genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and religions. Our two main characters, Captain Machedo and Elena, are both bisexual women, and the Captain is also demisexual. (One of the first things she does in this book is crash her own funeral being held by her ex-husband!) I enjoyed seeing Elena and Callie’s relationship continue to grow.

Second, the dialog is hilarious. The Captain and her ship’s AI are both smart alecks, and sarcasm and snappy comebacks abound.

The action is also very well-done; the physics of traveling through space aside, most of the science is feasible. All of the Axiom-tech is pretty far out, and some of the other science is….well it’s such a long shot that it only worked because it’s in a book, but it IS conceivable it could work.

This is one sci-fi series I will continue to watch for. (And I wonder how long before it gets optioned for TV?)

From the cover of The Dreaming Stars:

In the breathtaking sequel to The Wrong Stars, Tim Pratt brings you much closer to that ancient race of aliens, the Axiom, who will kill us all – when they wake up. 

In deep space, a swarm of nanoparticles threatens the colonies, transforming everything it meets into computronium – including the colonists. The crew of the White Raven investigate, and discover an Axiom facility filled with aliens, hibernating while their minds roam a vast virtual reality. The treacherous Sebastien wakes up, claiming his altered brain architecture can help the crew deactivate the swarm – from inside the Axiom simulation. To protect humanity, beleaguered Captain Callie Machedo must trust him, but if Sebastien still plans to dominate the universe using Axiom tech, they could be in for a whole galaxy of trouble.

Book Review: Analee, In Real Life

annalee in real lifeAnalee, In Real Life
by Janelle Milanes
Young Adult/Romance/Contemporary Fiction
400 pages
Published September 2018

I picked this one up because of the mention of the online roleplaying game. Somewhat disappointingly, the book spends almost no time actually in the game. We’re told that Analee used to escape into the game all the time, but in the book itself we see her putting aside the game for “real life”, over and over again. I was expecting her to be more reluctant to leave it.

That aside, this is a great YA book about adjusting to changes in family life and social pressures at school. The clique and rumor mill and popular kids are all there, with Analee on the outside – until she agrees to fake-date Seb. We watch as she goes from being invisible to being known at school, and how that affects her.

Analee’s also dealing with the impending wedding of her dad and his girlfriend, two years after Analee’s mother died, and all the emotions that brings up.

It’s a cute YA book, with a lot of character development, but the part of it that drew me didn’t get as much screen-time as I was expecting, so it just wasn’t really my cup of tea.

From the cover of Analee, In Real Life:

Ever since her mom died three years ago, Analee Echevarria has had trouble saying out loud the weird thoughts that sit in her head. With a best friend who hates her and a dad who’s marrying a yogi she can’t stand, Analee spends most of her time avoiding reality and role-playing as Kiri, the night elf hunter at the center of her favorite online game.

Through Kiri, Analee is able to express everything that real-life Analee cannot: her bravery, her strength, her inner warrior. The one thing both Kiri and Analee can’t do, though, is work up the nerve to confess her romantic feelings for Kiri’s partner in crime, Xolkar – aka a teen boy named Harris, whom Analee has never actually met in person.

So when high school heartthrob Seb Matias asks Analee to pose as his girlfriend in an attempt to make his ex jealous, Analee agrees. Sure, Seb seems kind of obnoxious, but Analee could use some practice connecting with people in real life. In fact, it’d maybe even help her with Harris.

But the more Seb tries to coax Analee out of her comfort zone, the more she starts to wonder if her anxious, invisible self is even ready for the real world. Can Analee figure it all out without losing herself in the process?

Book Review: P.S. I Still Love You

ps i still love youP.S. I Still Love You
by Jenny Han
Young Adult/Romance
339 pages
Published 2015

PS I Still Love You is a continuation of Lara Jean’s story from To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. It really is a seamless continuation – it picks up almost immediately where the first ends, in the holidays, with Lara Jean pining over Peter.

I didn’t like this one as much as the first – the sisters are still here, but Lara Jean doesn’t spend as much time worrying over her dynamic with her sisters as she did in the first book. This second book is all about Peter, his ex, and what’s going on at school. That’s fine – obviously the story needs to evolve and move, but the sisters were such a huge part of the charm of the first book that I really miss them in this one.

A second boy is introduced in this book – John – and to be honest, I like him more than Peter. I know Peter and Lara Jean are really set up as THE couple in this series, but – John’s so nice. And Peter’s so oblivious.

There’s one more book – Always and Forever, Lara Jean – and while I’m sure it won’t happen, I’m holding out hope that John will come back in book #3 and win Lara Jean over. I really, really liked him.

From the cover of P.S. I Still Love You:

Lara Jean didn’t expect to really fall for Peter.

They were just pretending. Until they weren’t. And now Lara Jean has to learn what it’s like to be in a real relationship and not just a make-believe one.

But when another boy from her past returns to her life, Lara Jean’s feelings for him suddenly return too.

Can a girl be in love with two boys at once?

In this charming and heartfelt sequel to the New York Times bestseller “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean is about to find out that falling in love is the easy part.

Book Review: Unbroken

unbrokenUnbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens
Edited by Marieke Nijkamp
Young Adult/Short Stories
310 pages
Published September 2018

I’ve read a few different Young Adult anthologies recently, and they’ve all been utterly fantastic. This belongs right up there with A Thousand Beginnings and Endings and Toil & Trouble.

As someone who HAS a chronic illness that affects every aspect of my life, I identified with several of these stories quite a lot. There’s one in particular in which they’re putting on a play, and the narrator mentions how TIRED they are. That their doctor would tell them to back off, and not do so much, but they call that stagnation and they’re not willing to give up the highs that come with accomplishing something that takes so much effort – and I feel that intimately. I’m still coming to terms with my new limits. There are times when I do too much, and I pay for it, in pain and fatigue and days unable to function as a human being – but it’s usually worth it. I just have to plan for the aftermath. To see that in fiction was a really validating thing.

Other stories deal with other sorts of physical disabilities – a wheelchair user, people with canes, or blindness. Some of the characters have more mental disabilities – severe anxiety, depression, schizophrenia. This is a fantastic collection, spanning genres from contemporary fiction to magical realism to sci-fi to fantasy.

I’m going to be keeping an eye out for more Young Adult anthologies, as this is the third one that I’ve read recently and they’re SO. GOOD. I know there’s two more coming out in the near future; one centered on Jewish characters that Katherine Locke has another story in, and one centered on vampires that also has some familiar names in it. (Vampires Never Get Old, which is a super clever title for a Young Adult anthology of vampires!)

I love checking out short story anthologies to keep handy for days I don’t have time to sit down with an entire novel, and man there have been some great ones recently. This is definitely one of them.

From the cover of Unbroken:

WARRIOR. ACTOR. FRIEND. HEROINE. TRAVELER. SISTER. MAGICIAN. LOVER. BIKER.

In this stunning anthology, #1 New York Times-bestselling author Marieke Nijkamp teams up with fellow disabled authors to create a collection of fictional stories that dispense with the tired, broken stereotypes – and reclaim narratives and identities. 

By weaving together tales of interstellar war, an enchanted carnival, or a dating debacle, Unbroken celebrates the varied experiences of disabled teens, including teens of color and of diverse genders and orientations, without obscuring the realities of their disabilities.

At turns hilarious and heart-stopping, these short stories share a common thread – one that has bent over time but will never break.

Book Review: The Spy with the Red Balloon

spy with the red balloonThe Spy with the Red Balloon
by Katherine Locke
Young Adult/Historical Fantasy
356 pages
Published October 2018

This is the sequel to The Girl with the Red Balloon – though chronologically, it actually takes place first. Since it mostly deals with different characters in related but different events, though, it doesn’t really read like a prequel. Really the only bad thing I have to say is that it didn’t answer the question of what happened at the end of Girl with the Red Balloon, and to be honest, I don’t actually mind. Spy could be read as a completely standalone book and be just as satisfying. There’s very little overlap between the two books, even though they deal with similar themes, in the same world.

I personally think SPY is better than GIRL, but I find that a lot with second books. I think authors tend to have a little more confidence by the second book; they know a little more about their world. They’ve gotten feedback from readers about what worked and what didn’t in the first book, and can somewhat adjust course based on that if they’re good. And Locke is excellent. I really liked GIRL, don’t get me wrong, but I LOVED SPY. The characters were fantastic, and the way she addressed Wolf’s demisexuality was perfect.

The book is set in a time when being gay was straight-up illegal, and one of Wolf’s fellow spies asks him about it because it was apparently in his file. He tells her there’s no evidence of that because he doesn’t feel that way about ANYONE. (He’s lying, but we’ll get to that.) He can appreciate when people are attractive, but he doesn’t feel desire that way – except for one person. One person, who he’d known for years and been best friends with before those feelings showed themselves. They’d never acted on it, which is why there’s no evidence of it. Demisexual is on the asexual spectrum, and as such it varies wildly in terms of how sexual a person is, but Wolf’s demisexuality is the closest I’ve seen in fiction to my own, so it’s really special to me.

Veering away from representation specific to me, SPY, like GIRL, stars Jewish people at its heart. This time we have a pair of Jewish siblings from America, each fighting in WW II in their own way. Ilse with her brain, helping develop magic for the US, and Wolf more directly, sneaking around Germany and disrupting their forces. GIRL dealt more with the oppressed German Jews, while SPY shows us the other side – the Jews who are fighting back for their kin, even though they could stay in the US and be safe.

Both books are excellent reads. I’ve had the fortune to interact with Katherine Locke on Twitter quite a lot, and at this point I will pretty much read anything she publishes. I love her characters and her plotlines and the obvious care she takes with the representation. Fantastic book.

From the cover of The Spy with the Red Balloon:

In a nuclear arms race, you’d use anything for an edge. Even magic.

Ilse and Wolf Klein bear many secrets. Genius Ilse is unsure if her parents will ever accept her love of physics. Her brother, Wolf, strives for a quiet life, though he worries there’s no place in the world for people like him. But their deepest secret lies within their blood: with it, they can work magic.

Blackmailed into service during World War II, Ilse lends her magic to America’s newest weapon, the atom bomb, while Wolf goes  behind enemy lines to sabotage Germany’s nuclear program. It’s a dangerous mission, but if Hitler were to create the bomb first, the results would be catastrophic.

When Wolf’s plane is shot down, his entire mission is thrown into jeopardy. Wolf needs Ilse’s help to develop the magic that will keep him alive, but with a spy afoot in Ilse’s laboratory, the secret letters she sends to Wolf begin to look treasonous. Can Ilse prove her loyalty – and find a way to help her brother – before their time runs out?

Loyalties and identities will be tested in this sweeping fantasy and fast-paced thriller that bravely explores the tensions at the dawn of the nuclear age.

Book Review: This is Kind of an Epic Love Story

this is kind of an epic love storyThis is Kind of an Epic Love Story
by Kheryn Callender
Young Adult/LGBT/Romance
286 pages
Published October 2018

This incredibly cute queer romance was the YA_Pride Book Club pick this month on Twitter. What I didn’t expect when I picked it up was just HOW GOOD the representation is in this book. First, Ollie, the main love interest, is deaf, and communicates via ASL or written word. This isn’t a huge deal; people just work around it, which is really lovely. There’s a lot of passing phones around with things typed out on them, plus lip-reading and some limited use of signs, many of them described on the page for the reader.

The other amazing representation is how the book treats bisexuality. Both Nate and his best friend Flo are bi; they dated each other before the beginning of the book, but Flo is dating a woman when the book opens, and Nate has a huge crush on Ollie. This is not treated as weird, or even remarkable enough to be noted. They just are interested in more than one gender and it’s completely normal. I love it.

The story itself is really cute; Ollie was a childhood best friend that Nate had a crush on, and he’s come back to town several years later. Turns out Nate’s crush still exists, and the boys start an awkward romance. Nate is the kind of overthinker that constantly sabotages his own happiness, and we see that play out in more than just his relationship with Ollie.

I also really liked that the book didn’t play into the “the first time with the right person is magical and perfect” trope when it comes to sex. No, first times are awkward and sometimes not all that pleasurable, even with the right person. But with the right person, you can get past the awkwardness and try again. It was a much more realistic first sexual experience, I think.

This book was a quick read, with great minority rep, from racial to sexual to disability rep. The story was great. I liked also that the romance wasn’t the only focus of the story; Nate’s relationships with his friends were also important to the plot. Great book.

From the cover of This is Kind of an Epic Love Story:

Nathan Bird doesn’t believe in happy endings.

Although he’s the ultimate film buff and an aspiring screenwriter, Nate’s seen the demise of too many relationships to believe that happy endings exist in real life.

Playing it safe to avoid a broken heart has been his MO ever since his father died and left his mom to unravel – but the strategy is not without fault. His best-friend-turned-girlfriend-turned-best-friend-again, Florence, is set on making sure Nate finds someone else. And in a twist that is rom-com-worthy, someone does come along: Oliver James Hernández, his childhood best friend.

After a painful mix-up when they were little, Nate finally has the chance to tell Ollie the truth about his feelings. But can Nate find the courage to pursue his own happily ever after?