Graphic Novel Review: The Vain

I was drawn in by the drop-dead gorgeous cover art and the rest of the book did not disappoint. “The Vain,” published by Oni Press, is a wonderful noir thriller about a gang of vampires and the FBI agent who spends a lifetime chasing ghosts. 

The gang calls themselves “The Vain,” a crew of incredibly stylish, of course, vampires whom we first meet in a bank robbery in Chicago in 1941. But it’s not just any bank – it’s a blood bank. FBI Agent Felix Franklin, a fresh recruit desperate to prove himself, thinks this is his big break. The coincidences are too many to overlook.

Through the years, the gang of four works undercover for the FBI in the fight against the Nazis, surfaces again in Communist Cuba, and turns into a cult of spiritualists in the 60s cheating drug addicts out of their blood with promises of an endless life without pain. They steal blood, lay low for awhile, and manage another heist. A beautiful vampire called Lost is their ringleader. 

From his first run-in with them, Felix becomes obsessed. But of course, no one believes him. He loses his family, he’s institutionalized, he’s reinstated again at the FBI, but he becomes a laughingstock. That part is something that’s often missing from vampire stories; what happens to the people who see them, in a world that thinks they are a fairy tale? 

I am not usually a vampire fan; I am not an easy sell for these kinds of stories. You have to bring something original and different in order to entice me. I enjoyed the historical arc of the narrative, the focus on the 1940s. The art was vivid, realistic and quite wonderful throughout the book. The storyline was fun and fast-paced. The Vain became sympathetic villains, in the end, and I wanted this story to be a series instead of just a five-issue book. This was Bonnie and Clyde if Bonnie and Clyde were a badass, hot lesbian vampire couple robbing blood banks throughout history.

I also appreciated the foil with Felix, a do-gooder type driven to the brink of madness in his hunt for revenge.

All in all, a fun story, and a work of art. I will be keeping this one on my shelf for a long time. 


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Book Review: Hollow Road by Dan Fitzgerald

A fast-paced buddy fantasy quest adventure; multidimensional female characters; and an intriguing species called the Maer that throws the traditional high-fantasy villain on its head. These were a few of the highlights that brought me to give “Hollow Road” by Dan Fitzgerald, published by Shadow Spark Publishing, high marks.

In Book One of the Maer Cycle, we meet Carl, a soldier who lands a well-paid job to bring a body back to Brocland, Carl’s hometown, for burial. It turns out that nobody’s heard from Brocland in ages, and they fear it is under siege by the Maer, a race of man-beasts that loom so large in legend and folklore that people think they are monsters, or at times, bedtime stories to scare children. Carl will need to make a perilous journey across Hollow Road to reach Brocland, and for that he enlists the help of two of his friends, also from Brocland – Finn, a student mage training at a monastery-like compound to become an adept, and Sinnie, a circus archer. 

This ragtag crew embarks on their journey to Brocland, where they discover that the Maer are less monstrous than anyone could have imagined. 

The story alternates points of view between Carl, Finn and Sinnie, and this was a strength of the writing style for me, helping us gain better insight into the relationships between these three as we switched between their perspectives of each other. It also meant there wasn’t as much chance for showing for the emotional states of each characters, but I was okay with that with this story because it’s meant to put the adventure arc front and center instead of the literary. The pace of the writing style moved along briskly and I enjoyed the author’s deft hand with rich descriptions of natural settings. 

Moving onto characters, I really liked Sinnie; she resonated with me as my favorite character. Usually I cringe whenever I read a male indie author’s depictions of woman characters; I’ve read some cringey descriptions before, that tend to rely on emphasizing a woman’s sex appeal and physical appearance instead of her emotional complexity. Sinnie was a well-rounded character and I appreciated that. I also enjoyed how her strength was shown not just in her military prowess, but in how she interacted with the Maer when she changed her mind about them. 

I wanted to know more about the magic system practiced by Finn; it was intriguing and I felt Book One only brushed the surface of it – I still have a few questions about its parameters, which I hope are answered in future books. I liked that it was based around meditation and a yoga-like practice. 

As far as the Maer go, that was the most interesting part of this story to me. You would expect a buddy adventure quest story to end with the buddies victoriously slaying the enemy and celebrating their spoils. I won’t spoil anything, but this book ends up with more internal than external conflict in that regard. Can people change, after they’ve grown up taught to hate someone? This book explores that central premise. In the Maer, we discover a species very much like humans, with their own customs and even legal systems. 

I’m intrigued enough to want to read more in the series. It was a fun book, just the thing for escapist adventure fantasy with deeper moral questions driving the story. 

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Short Fiction: Names Have Power

The coffee had grown cold in her cup, but she drank it anyway, grimacing at the lukewarm taste. Mystic was the name she had chosen for herself for this group. Mystic Seaborne. It was silly, so silly. She thought they were a roleplay group, but she wasn’t sure what they were about, really. She was trying to make friends. She was all alone in the city. 

Mystic was better than her real name. She didn’t want to think about her real name, or about her one-bedroom walk-up apartment on five flights of stairs in a complex in a suburb forty minutes away. That was the point, too. It wasn’t just about friends. It was about escaping. She tapped her fingers, her shoulders hunched. It would figure if they had stood her up, or if she had gotten the wrong place or the wrong time. That was pretty much the story of her life. 

Mystic ran a hand through her scraggly brown nondescript hair and stared at the reflection of her pale nondescript face in the window. She decided maybe she should eat something. Her stomach was growling unaccountably. Since no one was here yet, it wouldn’t be rude. The coffee mug had a cartoon cat on it; the cartoon cat looked shocked, its eyes wide, its black fur scruffy, set into a purple backdrop. “Caffeinated!” the mug proclaimed in large, scrawling black letters. She needed some more coffee to consider herself that. She looked at the bags in her eyes and wondered what they would think of her. 

The waitress came by. She was a middle-aged woman with slouched shoulders and silver fox hair. She wore a pale yellow dress and her bronze name tag said “Doris.” Women like her usually dyed their hair, so Mystic gave her props for keeping it gray. She smiled broadly at her quiet patron. 

“Want a warmup, honey?” she drawled, her accent thick. 

“Yes, it’s gotten cold,” Mystic said. She realized her hands were shaking, and warmth crept into her cheeks. “Also, I’d like to order.” 

Doris paused, as if surprised, then set her coffee pot down and took out a notepad. “What’ll it be, honey?” 

“The Southwestern Omelette, with sourdough toast please,” she said. Before Doris could ask, she added, “And ketchup and hot sauce to the side please.” 

“Coming right up. You like it spicy huh?” 

“You could say that,” Mystic said, her face growing hotter, as she felt like squeezing into a ball in the corner of the booth. Then she berated herself. She was trying to make new friends. 

Her coffee thus warmed up, her food arrived in no time, and she dug in. She ate like she had not eaten anything in a week, ravenously devouring the spicy eggs after piling them high with mounds of ketchup and hot sauce. Really, she just didn’t want to be eating when the group arrived; that was rude. In no time her plate was finished, and she was sopping up pools of ketchup with her scalded toast. 

Outside, it had begun to rain. Her shoulders fell. Maybe this was a terrible idea. She downed her coffee before it got cold again. Doris came by, eyes widened at her finished plate. She took it away, then came back with the check and another cup of coffee. “Take your time, honey. No rush.” 

Mystic stared at the slip of paper, face down. She swallowed, tasting bile. Her stomach rumbled in protest; maybe she had eaten too fast. She quickly looked at the bill, flipping it over and resisting the urge to crumple the paper. Then she checked her wallet. A dollar short. Fuck. A day late and a dollar… She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling a headache coming on. Her new “friends” were nowhere in sight. Maybe something had gone terribly wrong… 

She needed to get out of here. But she didn’t want the waitress to think she was ditching without paying. Sweat prickled her face. Times like these made her wish she smoked. That would be a plausible excuse. So instead she flagged down the waitress. “I’ll be right back,” she said to Doris. “My friends are going to be here soon. I just… need a breath of fresh air.” 

“How were the eggs, sweetie?” said Doris, her wrinkled plump face a combination of knowing, compassion and a dash of judgment. She must have known. Surely it was written all over Mystic’s face. 

“They were great,” said Mystic, giving Doris a beaming smile. Her heart thumped in her chest, and she just felt so wrong, just wrong. Her gut clenched. She was going to be sick. Doris with her kind blue eyes. Doris, not afraid to show her age. Mystic felt like she knew her; or at least, was emotionally invested enough not to rip her off. It wasn’t some nameless corporation she stole from; it wasn’t the restaurant; it was Doris, after all, the tip she wouldn’t get. But couldn’t she just put down the money she had? The question she would need to answer… What about the rest? What about my tip? 

Mystic swallowed. “If you need a lighter just let me know,” Doris said with a wink, patting Mystic’s shoulder. That was what made Mystic feel well and truly awful. It was just one meal. What was the big deal? It was just a dollar. 

Mystic couldn’t get out of there fast enough. The diner was pretty empty that afternoon. Just the usual old men who were retired city council members and businessmen hobnobbing at their coffee klatch, watching Fox News turned down. Mystic grimaced at the garbled sight of Tucker Carlson. The other patrons did not glance her way. 

The bell at the door jangled at her exit, stabbing a knife into her chest. Her eyes watered, but she wouldn’t cry. Why was this so hard? People stole things all the time and got away with it. Bigger things. More important things. More desperate things. This was just a buck. A dollar. A single bill. One Benjamin. 

Mystic found a spot by the dumpster, and luckily no employees were taking their smoke breaks now. She breathed in hard, rapid gulps. The air here felt stale, stagnant, dead. She sank against the wall of the restaurant to her haunches. It was a cold afternoon. She stared at the row of trees in the vacant lot adjacent the back of the restaurant. Their branches danced in the breeze, like harbingers of darkness. Mystic’s face was sweating even though it was cold. She closed her eyes briefly, trying to control her breathing. She kept watching the front of the restaurant, in case the group showed up. But now it was a half hour; they weren’t coming. Something was wrong. 

Then she couldn’t hold it back anymore. She threw up behind the dumpster, hard dry heaves. Her mouth tasted sickly and acidic and she brushed her face with her sleeve. Her jacket was still in the restaurant; collateral, she’d thought. But in her thin cardigan in the cold, she shivered. It was approaching autumn here. That time when you regretted that summer was so short but it would soon become cold days and dark nights. Around here, it happened faster than anyone thought possible. 

Mystic’s knees buckled, and she sat down on the dirty ground, littered with dirt and spent cigarette butts. She stretched out her legs. She couldn’t get her hands to stop shaking. The trees beyond beckoned her. Just run, they said. Forget about it. It’s not worth worrying your pretty head over. She gulped. Mystic Seaborne was a dumb name to choose. This whole idea was dumb. A roleplaying group? What was she thinking? A bunch of flakes, more like. She wouldn’t have anything to talk about with them. She didn’t play video games. She didn’t read fantasy novels. She liked Law and Order. She was on the cheerleading squad in high school. Now she worked part time at a nail salon. She could only afford the apartment in the city because her parents paid her rent. First job out of college, times were tough. 

She looked at her own nails. The paint was chipping and the corners were torn from biting them, a nervous habit. A bad look for a nail salon attendant. She hid them self-consciously just thinking about it, then sucked on her index fingernail, the compulsion too strong to ignore. She thought she’d probably get fired soon. But manicures were expensive to maintain, so she did them herself. She needed to keep up with it more often. Even if you worked around them, nails were easily forgotten, especially when you spent too much time in your head, thinking about how much your life sucks.

An onslaught of exhaustion washed over her. She couldn’t decide what to do. She should just go in there and apologize and say she was a dollar short, and she’d be back with more money to make up for it. That would be the ethical thing to do after all. 

But then the mist in the trees seemed to rise, a thick fog that she hadn’t noticed before. It was speaking to her. Taunting her. She didn’t know how, but the longer she studied it, the more it tickled her mind. She squinted into the blackness. It was still afternoon, still far from sunset. But the woods were dark, filled with foreboding. Beyond this vacant lot, there was the freeway. 

“It’s too hard to go back there and explain yourself,” said the voice. “Come with us. We’ll make you feel better.” 

The fog turned into shapes, human shapes, little sprites and fairies, figures outlined in the murkiness. Mystic’s stomach lurched. She vomited again, and she didn’t wipe her face this time; she held her head high, with breakfast detritus sliming on her cheek. She looked toward the front of the restaurant, in case the group had shown up. She checked her phone. An email showed up in her inbox. Five minutes before the meeting time. “Sorry, group canceled today. Erin is sick. We’ll reschedule. Details in the Slack group.” 

Mystic sighed. She didn’t even think to check her phone. Of course, they were geeks, they’d be glued to their phones. Who was she kidding? She was usually glued to her Instagram feed. Making makeup tutorial videos. Chasing Internet fame too. But sometimes she felt like joining the real world every once in awhile.

But the voices still scratched at her mind. “Come with us,” they said. “They’re not coming. They would have loaned you the cash. Or maybe they would have laughed at you.” 

Laughed at her, sure. Mystic bet on the latter. She didn’t even know why she was using that stupid name. This was a group for stupid flakes. She wanted to crunch her phone into a million pieces, but instead she put it in her bag. She stood up, shaky on her feet. She felt drunk, even though she’d only downed four cups of coffee. Black, with four sugars. 

“Come with us,” the voices whispered, sibilant along her racing thoughts. They followed the shape of her thoughts and ran with them, colliding with them. “We can take your pain away.” 

She never thought of it as pain, but maybe it was. Her stomach felt like lead. Her eyes felt like drifting closed, but she fought to stay awake. She looked behind her shoulder. No one was coming for her, even though it was a long break. She thought of her jacket, one of her favorites; but she could leave it. 

“Mystic Seaborne,” whispered the voice, taunting her. “Is that really your name?” 

“No,” she said, her lips chapped and thick. She found herself walking forward, toward the mists. Anytime she expected Doris to come out and yell at her. “Lady, you still haven’t paid!” But she wasn’t coming. She imagined her look of disappointment on her face. 

“What is your name?” 

“Mystic,” she said, licking her lips. Somehow she knew she shouldn’t give her real one. Names had power, or so all the fairy stories said. A face dancing in the mists laughed at her. 

“What kind of a dumb name is that?” 

But she said it over and over again. Her head pounded. She felt as if she were being pulled by an invisible string into the woods, and she was helpless against its pull. She walked through the woods, wide-eyed with wonder. 

Then she heard a voice calling her name, her real name, and she froze. Doris was after her. But the mists caressed her mind, telling her sweet nothings. She felt like a frightened rabbit as she turned back toward the restaurant. It was another world here, and she was trapped. Indeed, Doris had left the restaurant. She was still in her yellow dress and had her nameplate on. Her glasses were on her head. She looked worried, not angry, her blue eyes scouring the parking lot. 

Mystic’s heart raced. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t go back now. She clutched her bag tighter to her body. The mists crowded around her, angry on her behalf. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair,” they said, and she believed them. Her fear quickly turned into something else. She knew this emotion. This ugly, raw emotion. She had worked hard over the years to fight it. And now it was back with a vengeance. It was why she worked part-time at a nail salon and dropped out of college. They had found out. They found out what she did when she was sixteen even though the records were sealed. It was an accident. You could prove it was an accident. But it wasn’t really. She knew the truth. She knew the intent of her heart. 

She thought to run. That would be the easiest thing to do. But instead she crouched behind a tree and waited. She breathed quietly through her nose. The voices kept whispering to her. Validating her anger. “You’re right, honey,” they said. “You’re right. You’re going to be all right.” 

She believed them. Doris shouted her name. The worry was turning fiercer. Doris knew. Doris knew her plans all along. She came closer to the woods, looking through the mist, standing on her toes. “Listen, we can work something out if you can’t pay,” Doris said, sounding like a grandmother. Mystic’s heart lurched. She wanted to throw up again. But then Doris saw the mists. Really saw them. Her pace slowed down; her eyes widened. She came farther into woods. Her feet caught on the underbrush. 

“Come here. Mystic. Now we know your real name. Now we know…” The voices laughed at her. She followed them. But also, she wanted to follow them. It was just like before. She felt exactly as she had before, when she was sixteen, and she had killed her friend. It was an accident, she said. She knew better. She wanted Bridget dead. She wanted her boyfriend. It was a simple exchange. A life for a life. Nothing special about it. 

So Mystic walked further into the woods. If it weren’t for the mist, they would seem like a small vacant lot, and a stand of trees. But the mist made them seem like a wilderness. Mystic could hear the noise of the traffic beyond. She started to run. She kicked off her shoes and felt the grass and the needles under her feet. Doris followed. 

“Good girl,” said the mists. “Good girl. Good girl. Good girl. Just like that. Just like that. Come closer.” 

They ejected her from the woods and she nearly collapsed into the road. It was a freeway onramp. Traffic rushed by her, horns blaring. She couldn’t stop the rush of her breath. Doris was soon behind. Mystic looked behind her shoulder. Her eyes were dark and sad and tired. “Wait!” Doris said, calling out her name. Her real name. “We can work something out, honey!” 

Desperation clawed at her throat, and she couldn’t understand it. Was twelve dollars and forty cents really that big of a deal? She waited for a gap in the traffic, and ran. Doris followed. 

The oncoming semi didn’t wait. “Scarlett,” Mystic whispered, her voice thick and hot. The mists made her do it. But she knew that wasn’t true. Names have power, after all. 


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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.