Graphic Novel Review: Pirouette by Black Mask Studios, LLC

“Pirouette,” published by Black Mask Studios, LLC, is an understated little gem of a book about a girl named Pirouette and the two-faced clowns who raise her in a shabby old-timey circus. Clowns and circuses are fertile ground for fright, as well as beautiful art. 

This was a lovely book, light on story and heavy on art. The art was done in very dark tones, with some simply gorgeous character work by artist Carlos Granda. This kind of horror is not the kind of in-your-face body horror with cheap scare tactics. In fact, most of the violence happens “off-screen,” as it were, leaving the darkest scenes to the reader’s imagination. 

This is, instead, slow-burn psychological horror; I wasn’t exactly scared per se, but it did a good job of building a sinister whiff of desperation. Pirouette always thought she was abandoned at the circus as a baby and the circus life, with the abusive clowns who look after her, was her own personal hell that she’d be trapped in forever. Until one day, when the traveling circus arrives in the town of Lima, Ohio, a clown tells her a tale about her parents, and she goes on a wild goose chase, chasing after a strand of hope for some reason from clowns who have lied to her all her life. 

But in a twist, Pirouette’s dreams of a better life, a comfortable suburban life with a family who cares for her, are a fragile veneer; she knows the circus life is hers, and she has to make it work for her in the end. 

I liked this book because sometimes the scariest moments aren’t when the monsters attack you, but living with the monsters inside our head, instead. This is quiet horror, my favorite kind; a comforting kind of creep factor. This was an enjoyable little ride down the dark side of the circus. 

Graphic Novel Review: Odessa by Jonathan Hill

I haven’t blogged in so long! I haven’t been writing much so I don’t have much to report on my writing process. I plan to change up my reviews to only review graphic novels and indie books on this blog, and quick recaps of all books on my Goodreads. I am trying to read more comics so get ready for more comic book reviews! Without further ado…

“Odessa,” written and drawn by Jonathan Hill, published by Oni Press, is a lovely book. An epic, but understated; a heartwarming family story, except in a dark, dystopian setting. Comic books are usually produced by teams and this is a remarkable achievement by just one writer/artist. 

But, I almost DNF’ed it at first, so I am glad I stuck it through. This is not the kind of story that is packed with action and high stakes at the beginning. It is quite slow paced to start and then it is a slow burn mystery quest story as it unfolds. Eight years ago an earthquake, the Big One, hit the Cascadia fault line, wreaking disaster. Now America is a land pocked by bloodthirsty street gangs and strange new plants and animals, like jinx root, which heals injuries but also turns humans into cannibalistic creatures. 

With the backdrop of this landscape comes Ginny and her family – her two bratty younger brothers, Wes and Harry, and their distant but loving father. They’ve lived without their mother for years, so Ginny becomes the mother figure for the boys, whether she likes it or not. But one day on her seventeenth birthday, a mysterious package arrives from her mother, and Ginny is consumed by an obsession that she is alive. Driven by this urge, she embarks on a journey across the hellscape of the dystopian frontier on an impossible journey to find her mother. 

But Wes and Harry, unknown to her, tag along, and soon they are one family on a strange trip, full of adventure and bonding moments. This is book one of a series, and it certainly doesn’t end where you think it might, but I won’t give any spoilers. 

The art is interesting, it’s done in a two-tone style with a predominantly pink theme. It’s charmingly simple. The storytelling is stronger than the art, but the art drives the story, too. I liked the pink element because it was symbolic of the heart of the story being a family tale, and it was a nice contrast to the dark, dystopian wasteland. Even as violent gangs kidnapped and murdered people, the pink tones were a soothing contrast and made the reader focus on the family story, instead.

All in all, this is a lovely book. It’s quite long, so get ready to dig in, but it’s worth the journey. 

Spring is coming

Not much to say these days about my creative projects as I haven’t finished as much in February as I had planned, but I’m doing a monthly post to update my progress and check in with my goals anyway.

This last December, January and February were slow creatively. I have gotten a very slow start to my short stories, and find them more difficult to write while also focusing on longer works. It’s harder than I thought to switch between forms; it’s a different mentality, and it takes more stamina to complete a novel. Short stories are harder to write, but they also take less time. Currently, I’m putting all my energy into a novella, my weird Gothic story. It may turn into a novel, but I’ve discovered I have a tendency to overwrite, so it may be a different story after revisions. It’s currently at 11,770 words. 

I’m totally pantsing it, and also sketching some ideas and scenes in a handwritten notebook as I go. My idea is just to make it weirder and darker and more nebulous as I go along, so I thought the notebook would help jog more bizarre scene ideas loose. I draw out stream-of-consciousness mind maps and interconnected words and phrases in the notebook, then turn to my screen. I’ve tried different methods for writing novel-length manuscripts and I’m trying to find one that sticks. So far “plantsing” seems to work for me, a combination of plotting and pantsing. Pantsing is when you go in with no outline, no plan, and you just start writing. It comes from the phrase “flying by the seat of your pants.”

March goals

So for March, I have decided I will not think about short stories at all except for a new one for my Patreon subscribers, and focus solely on the weird Gothic WIP (work in progress). I think I have a tendency to overwhelm myself with projects and then sabotage myself into not finishing any of them. My brain does not do as well as I think with multi-tasking. And I really want to finish a novella- or novel-length manuscript this year. That is Goal Number One. I will put my other fresh ideas into my Idea Notebook and shelve them for later. My primary March goal is to get to 30,000 words in the weird Gothic story. 

I also want to be better at sticking to a writer’s habit – writing regularly throughout the week at appointed times.

Other goals: I want to get back into running again now that it’s getting warmer and lighter, practice guitar 15 minutes a day, and start learning French. 

Publication news

My latest short story is now live for $3/month Patreon subscribers. “Apartment 401B” is a weird, spooky story about what happens when that annoying noisy neighbor is more than they seem. Hope you enjoy it. My Patreon is here: http://www.patreon.com/teawhilewriting I have two stories free to read so you can get a taste of my writing style.

The pandemic, a year later

A little more than a year ago, I was able to start working from home in my day job as a legal assistant. It’s been a year since I have seen my parents or my friends, gone to a gym (though I work out at home) or eaten out at a restaurant. Conservatives would accuse me of living in fear, but I don’t see it like that. In many ways my life is better. I’m saving money, I don’t have the social anxiety of an office, I’m just as productive at home, and instead of leaving at 6:30 a.m. every day to commute for an hour to an office, I wake up at 5 a.m. and write or do yoga instead. It’s interesting how different all our pandemic experiences can be.

It’s also weird to think about how angry I was last March. Trump leaving office was like a pressure valve releasing. No, Biden isn’t perfect, and he shouldn’t be engaging in military action without Congressional review and we should pass a $15 minimum wage, but to make an equivalence between Biden and Trump is ridiculous. 2021 was always going to be dark, but I feel like a different person now. And not just because of politics.

The biggest change I made was that I stopped fixating on the behavior of others, and instead focused on small, positive things I could do for myself to make my life better, like journaling, exercise and routines. My anger taught me I care about others. I call and text my friends and family and have realized the importance of private discourse. I’ve reduced my screen time this year, only tweeting a few times a week. Last year I was relying on Twitter for a social life, and I got addicted, which didn’t help my irritability. Staying intentional with social media is hard because it’s designed to entrap your impulsive attention – you are their only product, after all – but I have learned the importance of boundaries and staying clear with my goals.

Anyway, now that I have settled into a quarantine routine, I find myself sliding back into my old habits of procrastination, and I think that is affecting my current levels of discipline more than anything else. The new “normal,” as it were. But was normal ever really all that great? I don’t think so. But I miss the mundane things. I miss popping over to a coffee shop for a soy latte. I miss browsing in a library and touching the spines of tattered paperbacks.

My goals moving forward are to lose my hypersensitivity to people; for example, when I’m out on a walk, I flinch when I run into other humans. Need to get over that or my anxiety will be off the charts when I feel more comfortable expanding my repertoire of activities when fully vaccinated, whenever that will be. I also hope to find a writing group to join, some kind of social activity I can do remotely to replace social media; and to watch more Zoom lectures, conventions, classes and poetry readings. So much is out there now that I don’t have to travel to; I might as well take advantage of it.

Reading

I am currently reading “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morganstern, a lovely, Gaiman-esque story about the magic of books; and my ARC from Netgalley is “We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep” by Andrew Kelly Stewart. 

I just finished “An Artificial Night” by Seanan McGuire, the third outing in her October Daye series, and that character continues to impress me. I also finished “A Rising Man” by Abir Mukherjee, an intriguing historical novel about a Scotland Yard detective who investigates a murder in 1919 India. It was well done, and I think I’ll continue on in the series. Follow me on Goodreads for more reading updates.

That’s about it for February. Same old, same old over here. But the sun is setting later in the day, crocuses, daffodils and trilliums are blooming, and vaccines are on the horizon; you could say spring is coming. So I am feeling hopeful. Now I just need to finish more stories.

Book Review: “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

“A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine, last year’s Hugo winner, is well worth its regard. It is the first book of the Teixcalalaan series, a cyberpunk and space opera universe inspired by many cultures, including the Byzantines, the Romans and the Aztecs. The second book comes out in a few months. The book follows the appointment of a new Ambassador from Lsel Station, Mahit Dzmare, to the Teixcalaanli Empire. She carries an imago-machine in her head, a technology that enables Stationers like Mahit to store the memories and consciousness of others in their brains. They don’t exactly become two people, but rather they are their own person, with another’s skills and memories enhancing their own. This kind of biohacking is considered immoral by the Teixcalaani Empire, but it is used to preserve institutional memory on Lsel from one generation to the next with the likes of pilots and miners. 

Mahit arrives in a particularly dangerous political situation in Teixcalaanli, when the emperor faces a succession crisis. Her predecessor, Yskander, was murdered, but he is hiding political secrets of his own. It is his imago-machine that Mahit has in her head, but it is 15 years out of date, and she suspects it is sabotaged. 

This book was an enjoyable, fast-paced ride dense with political intrigue, reminiscent of The Expanse. I was expecting more of a murder mystery but it soon became apparent that Mahit was less of an active protagonist investigating a murder and more reacting to events that unfolded. For example, when she investigates the body of her predecessor, she does not do an autopsy or look for a cause of death, but rather, her assistant asks her questions about the imago-machine. I saw it as more of a political thriller and an examination of the complicated darkness of colonialism. I seem to be reading a lot of books lately with the word “empire” in the title – colonialism is a trendy theme of 2019-2020 it seems. 

I found the political games in the story refreshing; it all fit neatly together like a puzzle based on scraps of verse and coded messages. But political machinations usually lose me if the characters are not strong enough, and I immediately fell in love with the characters in this book, Mahit and her assistant Three Seagrass in particular. Their sexual tension throughout the book and romantic subplot was intoxicating. I was immediately drawn to Mahit, with her naive nerd-like devotion to Teixcalaani culture, a society built on poetry, literature and the arts; but even she soon succumbs to bitterness, the brutal reality of empire-building settling on her shoulders, as both the Teixcalaani Empire and Lsel Station face an even greater alien threat than the wars that humans fight among themselves. 

I also saw the city on Teixcalaan as a character in itself. This worldbuilding was stunning, and welcome to dive into another popular book not inspired by white Western Europe. The city itself was run by an algorithm, and an intriguing exploration of future sustainable city design. The first book only touched the surface of the implications of the city’s omniscient AI. 

This is speculative fiction at its finest. A fun experience, great characters, and an elaborate world with interesting politics. Recommend strongly. 

This review also on my Goodreads page. I’m looking for more friends and followers on Goodreads, by the way.

January Wrap-Up and Looking at a New Month

Been neglecting my blog a bit so I figured it was time for a new post. I’ve mostly been focusing on reviews. I decided to change up my review plans this year a bit. I will blog all my reviews, even the negative ones, but I am going to write shorter reviews. If I stick with 500 words or less, then perhaps they will feel less like work.

Writing

I wrote one longer short story in January and submitted it, got a rejection in four days. I may look at it again and rewrite it to submit elsewhere, or I might just move on to other ideas. My shorter fiction has languished because I am focusing on longer works this year.

The NaNoWriMo project I started in November, the steampunk WIP, I was still working on until last month, and that clocked in at about 30,700 words. I am not sure I have enough “steam” for it, however; the plot seems stuck. It is still the longest fiction manuscript I have written in years, even if it is incomplete. I have decided to put that aside for awhile to focus on novellas. I think a novella will be a good transition length between short stories and novels.

I started a dystopian novella for a submission call from Black Hare Press, but I’m not really feeling that either. I have about 5,000 words in it so far and I’m not sure that idea has legs. Sometimes you have to write it out to get a feel for it. I am working on another novella which I am more excited about. The theme is “weird gothic” and so far I seem the most committed to this one, so I am waking up early every day and adding my 5 a.m. 1,000 words to it. We will see where that one goes.

So for February I may not write any short stories at all. I may just focus solely on the novella. I just want to finish more projects this year. I’m not concerning myself with quotas. I want to finish projects and I want them to be good. It’s a lot of pressure thinking about what kind of novel or novella you want for your debut; it’s almost like focusing too much on first lines. But that’s okay. Sometimes you have to keep your expectations low. It’s going to be another year of existential dread, I think; just have to see writing as stress relief.

Photography

I am digging my moody nature series so I hope to keep shooting a set every one or two weeks. Getting on Instagram again has motivated me to keep shooting. If people post pictures of themselves socializing with others, I just unfollow or mute them. That’s why I quit the last time. I couldn’t take the visual proof of people’s reckless behavior in a pandemic. It’s like someone shoving ice cream in your face when you’re on a diet, even if they mean well and take safety precautions. Had to clean up house and start all over again.

But now, I have a different mindset about it. It’s just an excuse to keep shooting.

What I’m Reading

I am currently reading “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine, last year’s Hugo winner, and an ARC from Netgalley, “We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep” by Andrew Kelly Stewart. I decided with the traditionally published books, other than the ARCs, I will do wrapups of my favorites with short blurbs for reviews. You can also follow my reading progress and reviews I don’t post here on my Goodreads.

Personal goals

I’m proud of myself for staying consistent with my exercise this year. Since December I have worked out at least three times a week. I go on walks on my lunch break, and after work I use my stationary bike and lift weights for about 40 minutes. I use an app on my phone called Strong to record my reps. I also do yoga about one or two times a week, in the early morning before writing or after dinner. I’ve been doing that for about a year and I can definitely see a difference in my flexibility and balance, even just doing it once a week. It’s good cross-training with weight lifting.

When the weather gets warmer I hope to put more energy into running again, but for now I’m sticking with the stationary bike and hiking for my cardio. I want to add in four times a week for weight lifting because I have a tendency to skip leg day.

Other than that I hope to keep up with practicing music and my crafts. Both have languished lately but I need to renew my focus for them on weekends. I decided instead of fixating on what I don’t have and how hard it is to quarantine and how angry I feel about the behavior of others, I would instead focus on non-social activities I can do at home. Knit more, write more, be more creative. It’s not to “be more productive,” it’s to have something positive to focus on, for stress relief and self care. 2020 was all about rage. 2021 is about creative relief and building better habits.

That’s about all. Can’t believe it is February already. January seemed to last a million years…

#Netgalley ARC Book Review: #SkywardInn by Aliya Whiteley

Please Note: I received “Skyward Inn” as an advance review copy from Netgalley for an honest review.

“Skyward Inn” by Aliya Whiteley has quickly risen to the top of my personal list of my most anticipated books of this year. It releases on March 16, 2021 from Solaris, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic Devon, England, where the Western Protectorate, a Libertarian wet dream in which subsistence-based agriculture is the primary means of industry and technology is shunned, has set up shop and abandoned the coalition of world powers. In this bucolic countryside of small town togetherness, gossip and community council meetings, human Jem and Qitan Isley run an inn called the Skyward Inn. They rise to a moderate business success based on a mysterious alcoholic beverage that Isley has brought with him from his home world, which they call The Brew. The name of this eponymous drink is not really in all capitals in the book; it just becomes important to the story.

Jem and Isley are veterans of interplanetary war, each full of regrets and unrequited longing. Isley is the penultimate outsider, the “alien,” and all the prejudices that come with that identity; but here, Jem is an outsider, too. She left home, abandoned her son Fosse to her brother Dom, and her son now wants nothing to do with her. The point of view alternates between Jem in a first person perspective to that of Fosse, who also has trouble seeing himself as part of this world. Add in all your colorful characters of small town rural life.

But this peaceful, beautiful place is not all it seems. Elsewhere in this world, a mysterious disease rages, and it threatens the apparent safety of the Protectorate every day. But the disease is not what it seems. Just as the brew is not what it seems, and so on. Everyone is hiding something. The fragile veneer of utopia, if you’re the correct type of person, will soon splinter.

Jem copes by drinking the brew with seemingly magical properties; fighting with her brother, who is a leader in the Protectorate who is something of an ideological purist; and counting her regrets. Fosse copes by escaping to an abandoned farm. One day, he discovers the farm is not abandoned after all – and that is when everything changes. And one day, Isley’s Qitan friend Won comes to visit, and Won has a problem; and everything changes for Jem, and for the town.

This is a beautiful, weird, surreal piece of fiction with a deep sense of interiority of character and graceful, gentle prose. It is a story of found family, melancholy, community, and identity. Most of all it is a story of what it means to belong, and what it means to remain apart, and the ties that bind us to the families we wish we had. Jem yearns to belong, to have been a better mother, to have been with Isley, to feel a part of the town, and she mourns the decisions that have kept her alone. But she comes to realize that perhaps her very independence is what will save her. The lush, steady prose, the thoughtful focus on these three characters – Dom, Fosse and Jem – was very well done.

I did have some quibbles, though. I like my science fiction to be science-based, although I am willing to suspend belief for good space opera. This however, did not have much science in it. I can’t reveal too much about the mysterious disease without giving spoilers; it did make sense in the end, where the author was going, but the mechanics of the disease were decidedly magical for literary effect, and I found it confusing until the very end as to how it all exactly worked. It all wrapped up in a weird, bizarro, dark, tidy way in the end, though, which I loved in all its weirdness, regardless of my initial hesitation. I would call it a space fantasy more than science fiction. I also wanted more dimension to Isley’s character, and I didn’t really understand the biology of how the Qitans functioned. But when I saw it as fantasy instead, I appreciated it more.

I thought I knew where this was going – the small bucolic town and a cult, right? But it was a nice upending of the trope of colonialist Earth invading helpless alien cultures, and that is all I will say about that.

Bottom line: This is a weird, wonderful story of a world that is not so unlike our own, a story about finding yourself when the whole world wants to find you first; a story about what it means to be part of something that is bigger than yourself, and the sacrifices that we make for the higher good. I enjoyed this book immensely. Thank you to the publisher for the advance copy.

Book Review: Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, and Book Review Plan for the Year

I received a stack of four library books this last week delivered to my door by my local library, so I’ll review my favorites in the next couple of weeks if I am able to get to them all.

And that brings me to a point I wanted to make about book reviews in my blog this year, if you’ll indulge a tangent. My goal this year is to read 50 books. Last year I read 30. Part of the reason why I review books is to motivate me to keep up with my reading. So this hopefully will be the first of a few reviews in 2021.

My review policy is this: I don’t accept solicitations to review books (avoid the DM! Don’t do it! Just don’t!). I don’t like leaving harsh, negative reviews, so I will DNF a book if I absolutely hate it; life is too short to read books that you don’t like. I review books I feel average about on my Goodreads, and explain some pros and cons about the book. If I can recommend the book, I post it in my blog. Sometimes I just leave a star rating, because that still helps authors in the Amazon algorithm.

The long and short of it is this – reviews should be fun; writing them shouldn’t feel like a job or an obligation. As long as they are fun to write, I keep writing them. I don’t do it to help authors with advertisement and promotion (if you want that, hire me! I’m good at marketing…) or even to network; I do it because I love books and I want to share my love of reading, which was my self-soothing activity during a very turbulent year last year. I hope to read a few more indies and books by POC and LGBTQ authors this year, and to keep up with my ARCs from Netgalley.

Anyway, back to this particular review. This book is an absolute gem, my first book that I finished reading in the brand-new year. It’s called “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse, Book One of the Between Earth and Sky Trilogy. Let’s start with the basics – even though I only had a library book, the hardback was simply gorgeous. The cover art was beautiful; even the font and graphic design were attractive. I kept reading it marveling at both the excellent design and the writing style. I would buy that hardback in a heartbeat. And the maps were drawn by Roanhorse’s daughter, which is pretty special.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, but this book was the whole package. I fully admit I have not read a whole lot of fantasy until recently because it is, frankly, not my favorite genre. Magic systems feel like a “And it was all a dream” plot device to me at times, like cheating; I’ve always preferred science fiction and its established boundaries. What’s more, so much of fantasy is inspired by white, cis, and heteronormative medieval Europe. Women are always queens and princesses; and there is always a dragon. Tolkein was amazing, don’t get me wrong; but how many retellings can there be of Lord of The Rings? Apparently an infinite number. It’s stale, to me, by and large. I’m not trying to judge anyone for liking this stuff, because you’re not alone. It seems unfailingly popular. I’m the weirdo for not being a super-fan; you can judge me all you want.

I want something different, though, than the usual fake Western European fare. This book provided that. It was like a breath of fresh air on every page; I greedily read this one, soaking up the newness of it, the originality. Roanhorse wanted to write an epic fantasy and get taken seriously as an epic fantasy author writing something other than white Western Europe. Well, mission accomplished. I respect everything this book has to offer – her worldbuilding, her characters, her mythos, her magic system, her writing style. The scope of this project is just incredible.

This is epic fantasy for a new generation. The world Roanhorse built is inspired by the cultures of the pre-Columbian Americas, taking the idea that indigenous culture is often disrespected as being lesser than or diminished compared to post-colonial technology, and giving respect and reverence to the intelligence and technology of indigenous cultures. But this is not historical fiction; this is not saying, “What if indigenous cultures were the dominate culture instead of white colonialists?” This is pure fantasy, and completely creative. This is a world unto itself. This is not Victorian England; this is another continent, portrayed with warmth and complexity. This book was meticulously researched and it showed in the details of these blended cultures. If you think you love writing fantasy because you don’t have to do any research, let a book like this prove your theory wrong.

The plot takes place in the backdrop of the city of Tova, which awaits the Solstice. It’s normally a spiritual celebration of the New Year, a time when the Sun Priest and the acolytes of the celestial tower bring the four clans together to recognize fresh starts. But this year darkness awaits, darkness that is foretold but more brutal than anyone could believe. Three characters converge in this same event: Xiala, a Teek and a ship captain whose magic lets her Sing to the sea that gave birth to her in order to master its waves; Serapio, the vessel of a crow god, destined for a path of vengeance and destruction, but also just a man, awkward and sheltered and new in this world; and Naranpa, the Sun Priest herself, who rose to her position from crude beginnings and is the only one in the celestial tower who can fully recognize their growing irrelevance to the people below.

All of these paths converge in blood and vengeance. The celestial tower was supposed to bring peace; but law and order is never so easily controlled from on high, with obsolete tradition.

I loved Roanhorse’s writing style; her glittering, vivid prose painted complex, real characters and brought this epic universe to life with sparkling color and detail. This is character-driven fantasy, even in a small ensemble cast. And this is a story in which trans, nonbinary and queer characters are presented in a complex, real, human way. Not in a preachy way; not in a token way; not in a way that focuses only on pain or only on joy. In this world, discrimination exists; division exists; it is the ultimate conflict that drives the heart of the plot, the many layers between magic and science, spirituality and practicality, greed and community. In this world, discrimination doesn’t define the queer characters in the cast; it is not sanitized in order to allow them to exist alongside it; but rather, discrimination exists, and queer characters exist, as complex people you come to care for and cheer for. This is how you do representation and do it well.

In conclusion, I just loved every minute of this book. “Black Sun” is a revelation, and Roanhorse is a refreshing voice in a fantasy landscape that needs new voices. Like the priests in the celestial tower, it is time to join the people instead of always looking toward the stars. I rarely continue on in a series, as I am usually not in it for the long haul; but this trilogy is different. I was hooked from page one, and I am eagerly awaiting Book Two.

Short Fiction: Miranda, by Denise Ruttan

I wrote this story in January of this year for a science fiction writing class at my local community college. It marked the end of a long period of writer’s block. It’s fun looking back to see how much my writing has changed this past year.

“Miranda”

Story and Photograph By Denise Ruttan

3,907 words

In frame: Eleana Essick

The din of the crowd reached a fever pitch. The gallery was packed tonight, shining faces of people eager to see the results of the prestigious annual Blackthorn competition. Is this why they called it the glitterati? Tobias Myers flattered himself that they were here to witness the crowning glory of his lifetime achievement. Paintings locked in gilded frames crowded the walls, showcasing the works of a variety of artists. But he barely noticed them. The wine and beer flowed, the ensuing clamor sounding like competing trumpets.

I have moved this post over to my new Patreon. I will still be posting writing updates and book reviews on my WordPress blog, but my fiction will now be exclusive to Patreon! Come join me!

Book Review: A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel

I received the book “A History of What Comes Next” by Sylvain Neuvel (expected publication date of February 2, 2021, from Tor) as an e-ARC for an honest review from Netgalley.

First of all, I will try my very best not to review this book with SPOILERS because very few people have read it so far, seeing as it’s an upcoming release, and sadly I have no one to talk with about these spoilers yet; but I can’t wait for more people to read it so I can geek out over this. Yes indeed, this is one of those kinds of books. I was blown away. I need to geek out, people. Hurry up and read this book.

At first I thought that this was a time travel book. Then I thought it was a space exploration story. Then the mystery slowly and expertly unfolded and I realized it was all and none of those things. This is the story of the Kibsu. There are the 99; and there can never be three. They have a few rules: Survive. Carry on the knowledge. Achieve space travel. But they don’t know where they came from. They only know the code, passed down through the centuries of women who defied their place in history. This story is really a story about the mystery of their secret society, discovered through fragments of time.

The story follows a mother and daughter pair, Sarah and Mia, in the 1940s. It’s the end of World War II and Mia is sent, allegedly, by the Office of Strategic Services to infiltrate the German rocketry program to recruit Werner von Braun. At first, I was struggling with the idea that a 19-year-old woman could get anywhere in late 1940s Germany, given the restrictions of gender roles and sexism at the time. Even with advanced scientific knowledge, and only interacting with scientists who could appreciate her intellect, that would be a stretch. But then I read the author’s research notes after finishing the book and it finally made sense.

In fact, that’s a theme throughout the whole book; these generations of women sneaking into holes in history where they didn’t quite belong in order to influence events. They leave behind a trail of bodies to cover their tracks, which then leads them to the antagonist of the book, The Tracker, another figure with a mysterious origin story who is feared by the Kibsu. But therein lies spoiler territory.

So in short order, you have: feminism, 1940s rocketry and the beginnings of the space program, all done in an intense, lightning-fast literary style. This one had me at hello. Talk about one beautiful rush.

The story is written in the present tense, which I usually don’t like because it’s usually done poorly. Not so in this book. The first-person present tense was crafted perfectly and immediately sucked me into the story, adding to the tension and ramping up the pacing. I wasn’t sure I really liked the protagonists, Mia and Sarah; they were a bit cheeky and egotistical, but in the end, I was rooting for them to live the normal life they realized they wanted, after all, but could never have. They had dimension and complexity. And the tone was written in an irreverent, self-aware style that drew me into character with depth and style.

This was a gorgeous story. I eagerly await the sequel. Thank you again to the publisher for an advance look.

Find the book on Goodreads.

Book Review: Ghost River by Chad Ryan

I received “Ghost River” by Chad Ryan, published by Lost Boys Press, as an e-ARC, an advance review copy, in exchange for an honest review. It took me a little time to read and this book is now available as a new release, but it’s definitely the kind of book that you want to take your time with, sink your teeth into, absorb into your marrow. This novel is an experience, a journey into a land of ancient predators and the power of the names that keep them in their boxes.

It’s a long read, an epic saga. It’s a story to which you make a commitment. On its surface, it is a monster book, but at its heart, it is a story about a family, the blood-soaked ties that bind, and the boxes of worlds that we trade for better boxes. This is a story of fear and love, loathing and revenge, power and control, mythos and modernity. This is the story of Ghost River, and more importantly, Orphan Rock, and the eclectic, dangerous melee that calls this particular box home.

Ghost River is a town in Arizona, a desert place between worlds, between the riverfolk and the desertfolk. In one world there is the tribe, which has always protected Orphan Rock and its fatal secrets from the outside world. But times are changing. Development is coming to Ghost River. First a freeway; then a casino. The old pacts wear down, are no longer valid for the times. Promises wear thin. The old world of Orphan Rock and its shapers of worlds have become mythos, fragments of memories. The monsters become greedy. Their egos enlarge. The Grim Seed always wants more; darkness is never satisfied.

Orphan Rock, you see, is a monster town. It serves the wills of Father Pig, and fighting for dominance, the Sisters of Sorrow. These ancient creatures, predators who subsist on human flesh, come from a crack in the worlds, a portal to another dimension. In Orphan Rock, everyone serves someone, and no one can ever leave. Or so they think. Years of servitude and grooming will do that. Dreams are dangerous. Or are they?

The Northamm family makes up the protagonists in the story; Esther, Minister, and their children, Little Snake and Dark Bird. Esther and Minister can leave the land, but the curse of the dirt keeps the monsters to the box. So Esther and Minister are the ones who feed their insatiable appetites. Love in the cages. Hoping for a better life. Or any life, at all, since choice isn’t something that people like them get to experience, those who are servants to the dark.

But like all monster books, who is really the monster here? The monsters become the sympathetic characters, and traditional narrative arcs twist and turn until you’re not sure in the end who the antagonist really is. Is it Father Pig and the Age of Filth? Is it the endless march of modernity, the people who forgot ancient promises? This is a monster book, but this is exquisite filth, reverent in its hideousness.

There is much to offend in these pages, but I found it a comfort read; because in the end, all good writing hopes to connect us to very human moments. Like Little Snake, escaping the confines of Orphan Rock for the promises of another Sister of Sorrow, Desyre, who made a little boy believe in a better box. It turned out to be just another box, and the boy wanted nothing more than to return home, with the wind on his face as he ran by the desert river, the home that he once wanted so badly to leave. Nothing more human than that, even for a snake.

The prose and writing style was choppy at times, a tug of active voice rapping on your spine; but this was for effect. This was a novel meant to be read aloud, to be experienced. Part of the experience of this storytelling was in the sounds of the writing, the sharp shock to the heart, the vivid descriptions of Arizona desert and ancient dreams and immortal death.

This book, in a word, was a “Wow.” This is the best of indie. Give it a chance, even if you don’t like horror or magic realism. It will make you cringe, and then it will make you revel in its gruesome glory. This may be a monster book, but it’s really, in the end, a human book. It’s a book about what breaks us, and what keeps us together, what keeps us moving, what gives us reasons to get up anyway despite all the burdens of all the worlds. We need more books like this. More stories that help us remember those things, ancient promises stirring, whispering to us from across the desert scrub in the midnight black. Welcome to Ghost River, indeed. You might never want to leave.

Buy the book: Amazon or Barnes and Noble.