Book Review: Shoot the Moon by Isa Arsen

3.5 stars rounded up for the outstanding bisexual representation, but I had very mixed feelings about this book.

“Shoot the Moon” is historical fiction set primarily at NASA during the moon landing. It follows the life of Annie, a young woman with a brilliant mind at a time when women had limited career options. Her father was a scientist, too, but worked on the bomb, work that plagued him all his life.

Annie wants to go into rocketry but into space exploration, instead. She breaks into NASA in the secretarial pool and works her way up to programmer. While at NASA she finds herself distracted by a charming navigator named Norman, all while nursing lingering feelings for her first love, her college girlfriend. Annie stumbles into a mystery at NASA, an anomaly in space time.

I thought this would be like Lessons in Chemistry but make it queer but it wasn’t really that. I found the pacing uneven. I didn’t expect the spiciness of the sex scenes either – I love spicy romance and I read a lot of it, but this definitely wasn’t a romance. Does every genre now have to have spice? Anyway. A lot more time was spent on Evie’s relationships than the mystery, which I found the most intriguing part of the book.

I found it confusing to follow how the narrative jumped back and forth between Annie as a child, Annie at college and Annie in present day, and didn’t understand why the childhood Annie passages were written in third person. It starts to come together at the end with ((spoilers)) but I still had questions.

But three cheers for well done bisexual rep showing both m/f and f/f relationships as well as historically accurate depictions of what it was like to be a woman and queer at that time. I also liked the author’s engaging writing style.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for the advance review copy. I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Book Review: Whalefall by Daniel Kraus

Wow, this book is a tour de force. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from this but certainly not a riveting thriller in the belly of a whale. Like how The Martian brought impeccable research and scientific accuracy to space exploration, “Whalefall” does the same for the oceans.

“Whalefall” is the story of diver Jay Gardiner, wrestling with grief over the suicide of his father after a cancer diagnosis. His father was a local diving legend whose shadow strangled Jay when he lived. They had a complicated relationship, one of those where the world only saw the legend and not the private cruelties.

Filled with regret at not being there for his dad at his bedside when his cancer got bad, Jay makes one final, challenging dive that he hopes will redeem him in the eyes of the diving community and his family.

But things go terribly wrong and Jay ends up trapped in the belly of a giant sperm whale with his oxygen running low. He must dig deep into his emotional reserves and the lore his father taught him to survive.

I found myself at the edge of my seat as Jay came close to death several times and each time found another way out. The character development was wonderfully rich and detailed; I loved how the chapters alternated between present day and flashbacks to Jay’s childhood, so that we really dug deep into his relationship with his dad, who in the end was not the villain Jay had always built him up to be.

This is a thriller about a dive gone wrong but it is also a story about family, fathers and sons, mental health, and the courage to be unconventional to survive.

I also loved the unusual narrative structure with very short chapters, sometimes only a paragraph, and the lyrical style of the writing, the use of dialogue and parentheses. I suspect that comes from the author’s graphic novel background.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for the advance review copy. I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Book Review: House of Marionne by J. Elle

I loved this ARC so much that I pre-ordered the hardback; the first time I’ve done that with an ARC. House of Marionne hit all my boxes and executed them to perfection. I haven’t read much YA in my past but some of the new releases, like this one, are so exciting that I am starting to change my mind on the genre.

House of Marionne is dark academia done right, a magic school that’s fresh and far from the usual derivative takes. Quell Marionne has spent her childhood on the run with her mother from the opulent, hidden-in-plain-sight magical world that sired them. That’s because Quell has forbidden death magic running through her veins, called toushana, which turns everything she touches into ash, or so she thinks, at first. There is more to toushana than the Order wants their members to believe.

People found with toushana in their blood are marked for death, stalked by a sect of assassins known as the Dragun. One such assassin is on Quell’s tail. When he finally catches up to her after years of poverty and countless moves, Quell separates from her mother and does the only thing she can think of – hide in plain sight right in the dragon’s den.

She enrolls at a school that trains people how to use their magic, a veneer of wealth and power interlaid with our real one. It’s run by her grandmother, who expects her to become her heir when she finishes her training, but all is not as it seems. After her life on the run, she’s thrust into this luxurious academic world full of secrets and betrayals, all while fighting a growing attraction to her mentor, a brooding, grumpy Dragun who is duty-bound to kill her if he discovered her true secret.

The characters in this were all wonderful, the writing style vivid and engaging. I loved the growing chemistry between Quell and Jordan, her mentor; enemies to lovers with a very satisfying slow burn arc full of smoldering glances, stolen kisses and intrigue. I was most intrigued by the universe that the author created; fresh, different, rich and visceral. A mix of urban and high fantasy blended together, a twist on the usual tropes.

Definitely one of my favorite books of the year; I highly recommend this one. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series already.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for the advance review copy. I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Book Review: A Shot in the Dark by Victoria Lee

“A Shot in the Dark” is my first exposure to Victoria Lee and all I can say is wow, does she have range, when I learned she writes contemporary romance with deeper themes as well as SFF. This incredible book is definitely one of my top favorites of the year. The prose is breathtakingly gorgeous, and I can tell this is one of those “books of the heart” that people are always talking about that has a very personal, authentic feel for the author’s own life.

The book centers around a forbidden romance between a hotshot photography professor, a trans guy named Wyatt Cole, and a young photography student spending the summer at a renowned art school in New York City. The story is filled with all kinds of tension and Wyatt’s ethical quandaries about boundaries after they spend a one night stand together on Ely Cohen’s first night back in the city and then have to work together.

The tension is so dripping with angst that it almost got to be too much for my personal preference for angst, half the time I just wanted to slap them both and say kiss each other already. But if you like high angst this will be your cup of tea.

If it was just that, this would have been a shallow, tropey book like every other romance on the market, just make it queer, but this was so far from that.

Ely and Wyatt are both addicts in recovery, one of the authentic details that really shines through as if the author has sat in NA meetings herself, clutching paper cups of coffee. Her photography semester is also a homecoming for her; she was raised in an Orthodox Jewish sect and excommunicated after her drug problems caused her family too much pain. Back in town, she struggles to maintain her sobriety and get vulnerable with her art, and finds a kindred spirit in Wyatt, who has his own struggles with family and artistic identity.

I loved how the explorations of identity are subtle in this. Ely’s pansexual but when she describes her sexuality to her new roommates, she doesn’t want to put a label on it; instead she says simply that she’s slept with both men and women, it’s about the person, not the gender. Likewise, I felt the journey she went on to reconnect with her religious identity was not stereotypical; she goes from appreciating the way that rituals bind the life of a family and a community, to realizing that she never stopped believing and needs that anchor and structure in her life even if her family might not ever completely forgive her.

All in all, wow, this book is amazing. I feel privileged to have earned an early look.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for an advance review copy. I am leaving this review voluntarily.

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Book Review: The Blighted Stars (The Devoured Worlds, #1) by Megan E. O’Keefe

I spent about the first 40% of this book not sure that this was the right book for me and almost DNF’ed, but I turned back to it later when I was in a different mood because I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters. I decided my problem was my expectations. I was thinking this would be like The Expanse with a romantic subplot and it was really more of a romance set in space. The political intrigue and the romance were incredibly slow burn and made more sense by the time the book ended as well as I am sure over the course of the series.

“The Blighted Stars” is set in a future in which Earth does not exist any more and corporate families like the Mercators control body-printing through mining for precious metals needed to genetically enhance the bodies that are connected to some sort of original neural map. I didn’t really understand the science of how printing works and I wondered why anyone would sign up for such a thing unless they were absolutely desperate or enslaved, something I wanted more background on. If humans could die over and over again, why would you see them as people anymore? The book only briefly touched on this in the second half, but I wanted to understand the ethical quandaries a little better; I thought that was an interesting part that didn’t get explored in depth.

However, I understood why there were so many unanswered questions about body-printing at the beginning, because the way that body-printing works is tied to major spoilers.

Set against this backdrop, Naira Sharp, a former bodyguard of the leader of Mercator turned revolutionary, is trapped on a dying world after something went terribly wrong on a mining expedition with the Mercator’s son and an expeditionary crew. Only she was printed in the body of the Mercator’s actual bodyguard and no one knows she’s really the rebel whom Tarquin Mercator testified against at her trial that put her mind on ice.

In Tarquin, however, she finds a sheltered, good-hearted kid who has a pet robot named Pliny, a scientist who just wants to do the right thing and doesn’t understand the full truth of his family’s underlying darkness. I found their relationship to be the most compelling of the book and if you don’t like their relationship you probably wouldn’t like this book since it’s such a large part of it. The first half of the book focuses on their relationship as they’re stranded on this strange planet and discover that the fungal infection they think is the problem isn’t what it seems; the second half of the book focuses on the political intrigue.

I wish we’d gotten more back story to these characters; I wanted to hear more about Tarquin’s childhood. In one brief scene it’s mentioned that he’s trans and his father had his preferred body printed for him, and it’s also mentioned that he has illicit pathways to give him added strength and agility, but other than that it’s barely touched on. I suppose this is refreshing because if people can get new bodies whenever they want, they just inhabit their preferred form, but I wanted a bit more character development.

However, I loved these two characters, and enemies-to-lovers is so often poorly executed but I liked the rhythms of their arc. I completely fell in love with Tarquin. More nerds in space, please! I also loved the complexity of the antagonists; shows maturity in writing to show the villains as monsters and simultaneously capable of deep love for their family.

I’d buy this book and read more in this series. I am intrigued enough to want to know what happens next.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for an advance review copy. I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Book Review: The Pomegranate Gate (The Mirror Realm Cycle, #1) by Ariel Kaplan

I absolutely loved this book! It was a bit uneven in its pacing and narrative tone, vacillating between charming irreverence/dark humor and unrequited love and genocide, so I wasn’t sure how I felt about it at first, but the characters were wonderful and I learned quite a bit that I didn’t know before about Jewish folklore and mysticism. 

“The Pomegranate Gate” by Ariel Kaplan is the first in a series about the adventures of a girl named Toba whose grandmother is hiding her secret of her half-Mazik (a type of immortal being with magic) identity with the use of a sapphire amulet that she can never take off. The amulet renders her unable to scream and unable to run. These traits are not useful when all Jews are evicted from their homeland or forced to convert to Christianity. Toba and her family elect to flee. 

On the journey, Toba stumbles into a gate between worlds, a realm where the Mazik live that can only be accessed by them on the full moon, and becomes lost in that other realm, where she discovers the truth of who she is and complications ensue. In the mortal plane, Toba’s grandmother Elena joins forces with Naftaly, the fumbling son of a tailor who has visions and dreams of the Mazik realm. 

The universe was so intriguing and a fresh take on the tired fairy tale/mythology retelling genre, and that kept me reading. The characters were also compelling and well-developed, with thoughtful motivations and complexities. 

This was a fascinating story of love, loyalty, family and faith, and I’d pick up the next book in the series. 

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for an advance review copy. I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Book Review: Teach Me (The Alums Book 1) by Blake Oliver

“Teach Me” by Blake Oliver was such a beautiful story. 

I loved this book about two men with very different personalities and backgrounds finding each other and taking care of the other. Robb Porter is an ex Navy SEAL with a prosthetic leg, who’s not into men, or so he thinks until he meets yoga teacher Stephen, who’s tired of getting his heart broken by a string of straight guys experimenting with their sexuality. 

I thought Robb’s disability was very sensitively portrayed and it added depth and authenticity to the hurt/comfort themes in the book, one of my favorite tropes that often tends to be written in overwrought ways. Not so here. I also appreciated that the author didn’t shy away from portraying the brutal and testosterone-infused culture of the military that Robb came from, including all the homophobia and locker room talk. 

All in all, I loved this book. Some of their breakups seemed so hurtful I wondered that either would make their way back to each other, but I appreciated that each changed as characters to be there for each other in the end. 

Thank you to Booksprout for the advance review copy. I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Book Review: Riding the Storm by Franci McMahon

This was such a beautiful book. I came into it expecting a romance and a family struggling with alcoholism but “Riding the Storm” by Franci McMahon had so much more depth than your standard genre expectations. It was a love story in more ways than one – love for racing, horses, family, the land, the ties that bind. 

This is the story of Kate Duncan, the daughter of a horse trainer who’s also a drunk and behind the scenes, possibly involved in shady race fixing, and her slow-burn romance with the ranch’s jockey, a Blackfeet Nation who’s also a two-spirit, akin to a genderfluid person in a woman’s body. I picked this up because of the sapphic vibes and I want to see more nonbinary representation in romance and that part did not disappoint. 

I expected the usual stereotypical portrayal of alcoholism, too, but that was sensitively handled, showing Kate’s evolution from denial and making excuses for her father to standing up to him and showing empathy and compassion throughout. 

Where the book really shone was in its vivid descriptions of ranch and racing life. Felt like I was right there in the barn torn between difficult choices. 

I’d definitely read more by this author.

Book Review: Game Plan (Vancouver Orcas, #1) by Amy Aislin

I have just fallen in love with hockey romances lately. “Game Plan” by Amy Aislin is Book 1 of a series that features different pairings on a farm-team hockey team in Vancouver, British Columbia. I really liked the author’s crisp, descriptive writing style and even more than that, her characters.

This is a sweet, heartwarming story about second chances, redemption, and overcoming mental health struggles. Matt Shore, new head coach of the AHL team the Orcas, is nursing a broken heart and bruised after a series of failed short-term relationships when his old flame, Pierce Langley Brown, comes back to town, bringing with him the added complication of being the father of one of Matt’s star players. Pierce ended things abruptly in a storybook romance during a messy divorce and a mental health crisis, and Matt doesn’t know if he’ll be able to trust him again, but he can’t seem to resist the charming antiques dealer and the history they share together.

I felt that Matt was a little too quick to forgive and give Pierce full access to his life after ruining his trust, but mostly I felt this was a sweet romance that sensitively handled Pierce’s mental health issues. I just thought Pierce needed to prove himself more. But I was quick to fall in love with both these characters, too, and the way that the author fleshed out the side characters in their lives. Thought it was refreshing that the sex scenes weren’t that graphic or detailed and it was more about character development and the growth of their relationship.

I’d definitely read more of this author’s work.

Book Review: The Skin and Its Girl by Sarah Cypher

In a word: Wow. This book has easily shot to the top of my list of my favorite books of the year. If you like truly weird fiction about immigrant experiences, family lore and a literary style, this may be your book, too.

I was blown away by the prose in Sarah Cypher’s debut, “The Skin and Its Girl.” Such beautiful, lyrical sentences. The story is definitely slow-paced in that more literary style that focuses on language and emotional states. This is the story of Elspeth “Betty” Rummani, a Palestinian American in the Pacific Northwest born with an unusual medical condition of possessing blue skin. But instead of taking the typical fetishization-of-identity narrative that I would have expected, it is instead a story of the power of stories themselves in a complex family of gifted storytellers fleeing troubled pasts and identities they could not reconcile with societal expectations.

I felt the story focused a little too much on Betty’s first three years and not enough on her adulthood for starting from her birth, but it was a layered story told by Betty in first person to the second person persona who was Betty’s great-aunt, revealing the family’s past as once-wealthy merchants who owned a soap factory in Palestine before exile and history tore them apart. I felt like I was sitting in a room with Betty’s aunties hearing them tell stories and soon forgot about the slow pace and became enchanted with the prose and how Betty’s unusual skin color became the least remarkable thing about her.

It was also about her struggles with her suicidal mother, her sexuality, her desire for invisibility in a world in which she was conspicuous in ways that the world could not explain. The passages about her mother’s mental illness were difficult to read but sensitively handled. Betty reviews her life with her great-aunt in front of her great-aunt’s headstone, trying to decide whether to leave her mother behind to join her beloved in a foreign country. We know what she will ultimately decide, but the story isn’t about the decision at all; it’s about relationships, and a family full of stories, faith, secrets and a rich folkloric past, strangers in strange lands taking comfort in saving each other again and again.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy. I’m voluntarily leaving a review.