Book Review: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

how long til black future monthHow Long ‘Til Black Future Month?
by N. K. Jemisin
Anthology of short stories/Science Fiction/Fantasy
397 pages
Published November 2018

I’ve only read one other N. K. Jemisin book – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which is the first book of her NOT Hugo-award-winning trilogy. I really ought to read the rest of her backlist, as she’s an amazing author. How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is a collection of short fiction – windows into futuristic or fantasy or even contemporary worlds, all centering black characters. I think my favorite was The City, Born Great, about New York City waking up. L’Alchimista, about a talented chef given an impossible challenge, appealed to my baker’s heart, as did Cuisine des Mémoires, about a magical restaurant that can recreate any meal from any time. The Narcomancer sounded like something that could happen in my D&D game, and The Evaluators was slowly horrifying. The Storyteller’s Replacement and Cloud Dragon Skies both have dragons, one of my favorite fantasy features, as does the story Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters.

Every story in this book was amazing. I’ve only specifically named a few, but every single one is excellent. Jemisin runs the gamut from sci-fi to cyberpunk to medieval fantasy to magical realism and contemporary fantasy. There are stories in parallel universes, purely online worlds, shattered universes, and worlds that seem to be our own with a touch of magic. Every one of them is brought to vivid life. Jemisin is an extraordinary writer, and her short fiction shows it.

These are intelligent stories, full of commentary on the current state of our world. From the Jim Crow South to the abandonment of New Orleans to floodwaters, to future apocalypses brought on by our negligence and space exploration spurred by climate destruction, Jemisin’s stories have footholds in reality that are hard to ignore.

Fantastic book. (And that cover is FIERCE.)

From the cover of How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?:

Three-time Hugo award-winning and New York Times bestselling author N. K. Jemisin sharply examines modern society in her first short story collection.

N. K. Jemisin is one of the most powerful and acclaimed speculative fiction authors of our time. In the first collection of her short fiction, which includes several never-before-seen stories, Jemisin equally challenges and delights with narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption.

Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo Award-nominated short story “The City, Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

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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.