The Midpoint of 2021: Favorite Speculative Fiction Books…So Far

Well, we’ve made it to the halfway point of 2021. I won’t begin this post with the usual current events, but I will mention that I’ve been enjoying ALL of the sporting events that are taking place (i.e. Euro Cup, Copa America, NBA & NHL Playoffs, Summer 2020/21 Olympic Trials, etc.). More attention has been given to both books and video games as those who’ve been at home continue to remember that they’re both entertaining and artistic.

As for me, I’ve been recovering from an exhausted winter and spring. This is because, as a few of you know, I went back to graduate school in order to earn a MA degree in Library and Information Science. For the last 2 years, I’ve been taking classes on an accelerated pace in order to complete the program sooner rather than later. No, COVID-19 wasn’t an “imminent” threat when I started back in Fall 2019; and yes, it was an interesting experience completing the program throughout the majority of the pandemic, work my part-time job outside of my residence, and continue working on my blog. In addition, I’ve only told my closest friends and acquaintances (including you) about this, meaning I’ve managed to work on a degree without my ENTIRE family knowing about it. And, unless they read this post, then it will stay that way until I am ready to make an announcement, which will be sometime after I get a job within my field (whenever that may be).

Why am I mentioning this now? Simple, it’s because during my last semester, I had to work on graduating on time and in order to do that I had to cutback on SOME of my reading. Those of you who follow me on Goodreads will notice that I’m behind on my Reading Goal and I’m lagging on completing the books I’m reading currently. I won’t get into my TBR piles both from Netgalley and Edelweiss! It’s NOT that the books are bad in anyway, I’m still mentally exhausted from all of the work I had to do in order to graduate on time; not to mention all of the other events called life.

I am starting to feel better and I started to catch up on both my reading and my writing (including reviews). You’ve noticed that I started posting reviews again, but remember I read faster than I write. Which brings me to another announcement: I realized that my 200th post is upcoming and I plan on writing another “special” piece in order to commemorate the milestone. What will it be? You just have to wait.

Now, for what you’ve been waiting for:

Books I’ve Finished Reading:

Across the Green Grass Fields

First, Become Ashes

Tower of Mud and Straw (It was nominated for a Nebula Award for “Best Novella”!)

The Bone Shard Daughter (Yes, it was released in 2020, but the sequel comes out later this year!)

The Light of the Midnight Stars

Chaos Vector (Just in time to read the final book in the trilogy!)

Fugitive Telemetry

Over the Woodward Wall (Along the Saltwise Sea comes out this fall!)

Shards of Earth (My 1st Book Tour!)

And, A LOT of Paranormal & Fantasy Romance Books by Indie Authors (That’s for a future post!)

Books I’m Reading Currently:

The Empire’s Ruin

The House of Always

She Who Became the Sun

The Unbroken

The Jasmine Throne

The Gilded Ones

Books I Want to Read by the End of 2021:

The Broken God

Firebreak

The Fire Keeper’s Daughter

House of Hollow

The Unspoken Name

The Witch’s Heart

For the Wolf

The Two-Faced Queen

The Next 2 Books in The First Argentines Series

The sequels of the upcoming books mentioned; more paranormal & fantasy romance books; and, several MORE books I can’t list here because otherwise, this post would be never-ending.

I don’t know whether or not I will be able to read the books mentioned by the end of this year. I’m still trying to catch up from last year’s TBR! So right now, I want to thank the authors, the other bloggers, Fantasy-Faction, all of the publishers and the agents for being both supportive and understanding as I continue to work my way through the last 6 months, and for encouraging me to continue working on my other writings.

Speaking of “other” writings, please keep an eye out for any upcoming essays and lists I will continue to share here. Any and all feedback are welcome.

We’re halfway through 2021. What are your plans for the rest of the year?

Also, if you haven’t already, then please read the essay I wrote that was published on the SFWA website! Click here to access it.

Book Haul: Indie Bookstore Day Edition

On Saturday, April 24th, it was Indie Bookstore Day (and my younger brother’s birthday)!

The purpose of Indie Bookstore Day is to support your local and/or your favorite indie bookstore by purchasing merchandise and/or books from them.

One of my favorite indie bookstores is Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, New York! Besides being a bookstore with 5 levels of books, several events take place there on a weekly basis. Before and during (and soon, after) the pandemic, I’ve attended several events where authors would discuss their books, have book signings and participate in live Q&As! Even now, with the pandemic, Strand has managed to keep everything up and running.

The Strand decided to have a 30% sale on their ENTIRE store! I couldn’t miss out on this deal, so I delve into book shopping. And surprisingly, I was in more control than I thought I would be.

These are some of the books I bought! If you’re familiar with these titles, then you’ll notice something interesting about the books I bought!

Here’s the answer behind my purchases!

Now, I can read this series without worrying about the gap between the books!

After winning the 3rd book in a giveaway with the author’s signature, I had to buy the 1st 2 books in this trilogy!

Finally, I have ALL 4 books in The Nine Realms! I’m hoping that Tor plans on publishing a 4-in-1 Collector’s Edition of this series in the near future!

And, I couldn’t help myself, I had to get a tote bag with one of The Strand’s most infamous quotes!

Did you participate in Indie Bookstore Day? If so, then what did you buy? What’s your favorite indie bookstore?

I’m looking forward to when I can visit the Strand Bookstore again!

This Week’s Book Haul (April 4-10, 2021): NetGalley Edition

We are familiar with posts about Weekly or Monthly Book Hauls, or new arrivals of books. These books can be ARCs, purchases and/or gifts. Sometimes, there are stories surrounding these book hauls, but most of them don’t need to be told. I’m taking the opportunity and I’m using this week’s book haul to discuss some lingering and continuing issues I’ve been having with NetGalley.

Request Rejected

Most of us remember when we had our requests rejected. This is a scenario I’m still familiar with: request a book, have that request rejected, search other opportunities to receive an ARC (Goodreads giveaways, Bookish First, etc.) and fail in that, purchase the book the week it’s released.

‘Read Now’ Quota Reached

Those of us who check NetGalley daily and/or receive the newsletters know what I am talking about. You receive an email and/or you’re browsing a galley site and you realize that you can download the book immediately. However, you’re NOT in front of your computer and you are unable to download the galley from your mobile device, which means you’ve missed out on receiving the galley. On top of that, your request is rejected; so, you wait until you can purchase the book.

Request Pending (even with the ‘Read Now’ selection available)

This happens more often than NetGalley wants to admit. You request a galley and it’s pending. Then, a few weeks later, the publisher gives the book a “Read Now” status. So, you access your NetGalley account hoping to download the book, only to notice that your request is still pending. You can’t cancel the request and there is no way around downloading the book due to its “status,” which leaves you feeling more annoyed because you were so close to obtaining the galley that you wanted.

In this case, after entering numerous giveaways, the author of Firebreak, Nicole Kornher-Stace, mailed an ARC to me (Thank you SO MUCH for doing that for me)! Firebreak is one of my most anticipated books of 2021, and I’m honored that the author decided to mail me an Advanced Copy in exchange for an honest review, which I will be doing sooner rather than later (after I read the book of course)!

I should mention that this is NOT an issue with Edelweiss+. In fact, there have been times when I’ve had a request rejected only for the publisher to allow for the “Download” option for anyone who is interested. This change overrides the any previous status. If Edelweiss has this override, then shouldn’t NetGalley?!

Galley I Forgot to Download BEFORE the Archive Date

This one was my fault. I heard about this book from other bookbloggers, and I my request was granted almost immediately. Unfortunately, I did NOT download the galley by the archive date. Honestly, I might have misread April (Apr. on NetGalley’s website) for August (Aug. on NetGalley).

I still wanted to read this book, so I bought it! This book is a translation of a trilogy about Norse mythology. Since Norse myths are the stories to read at the moment (I still have to read both Northern Wrath and The Witch’s Heart), I decided to add this one to the list. I want to do a Norse-themed read through before Norsevember 2021!

So, why did I write this post? I wanted to let readers, bloggers and reviewers know that they are not the only ones with these issues on NetGalley. I believe that all of these issues are common knowledge, but for some unknown reason, NetGalley has yet to address the issues surrounding their available galleys. I understand some of it goes back to the publishers’, but they are NOT the ones running the site.

Have any of you had similar and/or different experiences with these galley sites? What did you do? What are your other options for gaining ARCs and galleys? And yes, I’m looking forward to reading ALL of these books!

Why You Need to Read: “The Light of the Midnight Stars”

The Light of the Midnight Stars

By: Rena Rossner

Published: April 13, 2021

Genre: Historical Fantasy/Folklore

            There are tales of red-haired mountain men and women who could work miracles, of a people who could trace their lineage all the way back to the great King Solomon himself. Tales of a people who kept to themselves, who lives in a tiny quarter of the city of Trnava where they built their own house of worship. They say that on the ceiling of their synagogue there were a thousand tiny stars, (Prologue).

            I’ve said more than once that history never stays buried forever because it always finds a way to be unearthed. At the same time, the knowledge finds other ways to be spread and passed on through posterity—storytelling. It is through these stories the audience can piece together what might have occurred in the past, especially when the audience knows what to expect from such stories. Rena Rossner presented a lovely tale of magic and sisterly love in her debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood. In her latest novel, The Light of the Midnight Stars, we get a similar story, which is set during a much darker era. 

            This story follows 3 sisters: Hannah, Sarah and Levana. They are the daughters of Rabbi Isaac Solomonar and his wife, Esther, and they are the descendants of King Solomon. Hannah is the eldest and her father’s favorite daughter, and her talents include recording events and growing plants. Sarah is the middle daughter, whose temperament matches her fire magic—impulsive and strong. Her talent is the same as her father’s, but he refuses to teach her anything until after she learns control. Levana is the youngest sister, and she is always looking at the stars. She can decipher the messages they communicate to her. The sisters live a happy and prosperous life in the Jewish quarter of Trnava, where their parents hope to find them husbands who are worthy of them. Hannah meets Jakob, the son of the Duchess of Trnava; and, Jakob is willing to meet Rabbi Isaac’s conditions so that he can marry Hannah. Sarah meets Guvriel, one of Rabbi Isaac’s students; he takes it upon himself to teach Sarah about her magic, and the two of them bond over their shared talent and thirst for knowledge. Unbeknownst to her family, Levana starts seeing someone and it is someone who has spent the same amount of time watching her as Levana has spent watching him. The 3 sisters approach adulthood thanks to their parents’ guidance and the love that blooms from the young men in their lives. However, will it be enough for the sisters to survive their first trials as adults? 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first focuses on the love lives of Hannah, Sarah and Levana and what ensues because of it. Hannah falls for a non-Jew, Sarah must wait until she is allowed to marry Guvriel, and Levana doesn’t know how to tell her family about her beloved. Just as it seems like the sisters will live out their lives happily ever after, a tragedy occurs. The sisters flee Trnava with their parents leaving everything behind, including the men they love. The second plot delves into identity and the consequences surrounding it. Hannah, Sarah and Levana must choose on how much of themselves they are willing to reveal to their new acquaintances as they survive the circumstances which led them to their current predicament. How long can one’s identity be hidden before the truth emerges? There are 2 subplots in this novel and they develop alongside the plots. The first subplot is about love and loss. As cliché as it sounds, the protagonists and other characters have lost something (or someone) they love, and they are all struggling to overcome the grief and the trauma enclosing it. The second subplot is hope, which is cliché, too. Hope is what motivates all of the characters as death and violence continues to ravage the country. Hope brings out the resilience in people (and in fictional characters).

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Hannah, Sarah and Levana in the 1st person. However, Hannah’s P.O.V. chapters are in the past tense because her chapters are written as journal entries, but that doesn’t mean readers won’t be able to pick up on Hannah’s stream-of-consciousness. Sarah and Levana’s chapters are told in the present but in different styles, which is done because they match their personalities (anyone whose read the author’s first novel will know what to expect), and present their streams-of-consciousness, too. Each narrator unveils what they must do in order to survive in a world that seeks to eradicate them and others who share their heritage. 

            The style Rena Rossner uses in The Light of the Midnight Stars follows the history of the persecution of Jews throughout our history. The Jewish community were often scapegoats for any and all misfortunes that befell a town, a region, or a country. For example, during the Black Plague, the Jews were blamed for the deaths and the continuation of the pandemic. Many Jewish quarters were obliterated, leaving any survivors to wander to other places where some of them had to hide their heritage from the outside world in order to live. In addition, this book contains many allusions of Biblical (Old Testament/Torah) texts and fairy tales, which are well-written into this novel. This story will make readers recall what they believed they have forgotten about those tales. The mood in this novel is ominous. Who should the protagonists fear more, the Black Mist or those who wish to harm them for who they are? The tone in this novel is resilience. The protagonists demonstrate that they will do everything that is imperative for their survival. The style in the novel replicates all of the adversity the Jewish community dealt (and continues to deal) with and how they continue to overcome it all.

            Fans of the author’s first novel will love this one. The appeal for The Light of the Midnight Stars will be positive because the author wrote a strong follow up to her debut novel. Fans of Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden, Alix E. Harrow and Tasha Suri will enjoy this book the most. This book is an excellent addition to both the historical fantasy subgenre and the speculative fiction genre. Likewise, this novel is a great reminder of the importance of Jewish folklore. Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t stop until the end; and, that’s with all of the twists that transpired throughout the narrative. 

            The Light of the Midnight Stars is a strong standalone novel about family, heritage and survival. Rena Rossner’s style immerses her readers into the past where it was not always safe to parade one’s heritage. While I don’t believe the author meant for this book to be topical, it does serve as a reminder that there will always be opposition towards a group of individuals. Yet, it is those groups of persecuted individuals where we continue to get inspiration from for our daily lives. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Thank you Redhook (and Angela) for sending me a copy of this book!

Current Speculative Fiction Series I Need to Complete

The Poppy War, #3: The Burning God (2020) by R.F. Kuang

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve been meaning to read this final book in this bloody and brilliant historical grimdark trilogy. I did read the first couple of chapters, so I know that this story begins immediately where The Dragon Republic left off. And, that Prologue! I’m familiar enough with this subgenre of fantasy to know how this story could end, but I’ll have to read it to find out! If you haven’t start this series yet, then you’re missing out. Remember to start with The Poppy War.

Blood and Gold, #3: Queens of the Sea (2019) by Kim Wilkins

This series is unknown outside of Australia, and I had to order a copy of the 3rd and final book in this trilogy from a bookstore in the Down Under. The first book in this trilogy is Daughters of the Storm, and the premise of the book is about 5 royal sisters who go on a journey to save their father, the king, from a mysterious illness. Meanwhile, their stepbrother seeks the throne, and goes out of his way to expose the secrets each of the sisters are hiding from each other. The second book in the trilogy, Sisters of the Fire, takes place 5 years later, and it delves into the oncoming threats heading towards the kingdom, and the aftermath of the fallout amongst the 5 princesses. Queens of the Sea takes place 5 years after the end of the second book, and I’m still excited to read it!

Mistborn: Era 1 (2006-8) by Brandon Sanderson

Yes, I started one of Brandon Sanderson’s series! It was a few years ago; and yes, I remember what happened where I left off (in the 2nd book)! Tor was kind enough to gift me these books from one of their (previous) sweepstakes, and I started reading the books immediately. However, I stopped halfway through The Well of Ascension (around the point where the pace slows down) and I haven’t had time to finish reading this trilogy. Interestingly, the only other book by Brandon Sanderson I’ve read was The Original (the audiobook he co-wrote with Mary Robinette Kowal). I own some of the author’s other books (including The Starlight Archive), but I guess I want to complete one series before starting another one.

Rosewater Trilogy (2017-19) by Tade Thompson

I read and reviewed Rosewater, and I was very excited to read the rest of the trilogy. And then, I read the author’s Molly Southbourne series instead. I should hurry up and read the rest of this Africanfuturism trilogy! If you’re a fan of both Nnedi Okorafor, Tochi Onyebuchi and P. Djeli Clark, then you need to start reading this series!

The Wicked + The Divine (2014-19) by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie (Illustrations), Matt Wilson (Colorist), Clayton Cowles

I’ve been getting back into graphic novels. I was reading this series until around Volume 3, and then I just stopped. I kept buying them, but I haven’t finished the series yet. With this series, I’m going to start from the beginning and read them all straight through.

This series is about how 12 immortals are reincarnated as teenagers, who get their live as pop idols with all of the fame and recognition. However, there is a catch: after 2 years, they die. So, what will this generation of reincarnated gods do with 2 years left to live?

Knowing my schedule, I probably won’t get to these books until the summer. Not to mention, I have A LOT of other books to get through from my TBR pile. What will I read next? Your guess is as good as mine.

Which series do you still need to finish reading?

Why You Need to Read: “First, Become Ashes”

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING: Be advised. This book contains elements of self-harm, imprisonment, rape, torture, abuse, and non-consensual sex. 

I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are mine alone.

            Her voice drips with pity I neither want nor need. This is useless—this whole conversation. Nova said outsiders wouldn’t believe us. Not that we were acting in their best interests, nor that we were Anointed. She warned us about their zealots and skeptics. That I could literally work magic in front of them and they wouldn’t see it. Well, I know myself and I’m not going to waste time or magical energy proving their ignorance to them. I don’t care if Miller believes me, I just need her to uncuff me, (5: Lark/Now). 

            Speculative fiction has emerged to have a fandom which rivals sports fans. The last 50-60 years saw the emergence and the growth of fans of this genre through books, films, and video games. As the fandom and the popularity grew, people started dressing up as their favorite characters and recreating scenes from those media. Various activities—especially, Dungeons & Dragons—are familiar as fans take tropes from these narratives and come up with similar stories. Just like with all stories, there are moments of the good, the bad and the ugly. Most of the time, fans—cosplayers and gamers—tend to leave the ugly out of their “stories.” K.M. Szpara does NOT avoid the ugly in his latest novel, First, Become Ashes, a hybrid of Jonestown and Japanese role-playing games.  

            The protagonist in this novel is Lark, short for Meadowlark. He has spent his entire life in Druid Hill with the Fellowship, training to partake in a quest to save the world. He is one of the Anointed Ones—those gifted with magic and abilities—who will leave his home on his 25th birthday to prove himself by defeating a F.O.E.—“Force of Evil”—or, a monster. However, Lark is a couple of months shy of his 25th birthday. The one who gets to leave Druid Hill first is Kane, who is Lark’s training companion and boyfriend. He is an Anointed One, too; but, since he is older, Kane leaves for his quest first. Lark starts counting down the days until it is his turn to leave and to join Kane. Unfortunately, Kane goes off on a different quest, and it involves the F.B.I. and the S.W.A.T. Team. Kane has decided to put an end to the lies told by their leader, Nova. Kane discovered a long time ago that their lives were a lie. There is no magic, no monsters, and no reason to fight. The lead agent on this investigation is Agent Miller, who knows a lot more about the Fellowship and Nova than she lets on. Agent Miller needs Lark to testify against Nova and the Elders for all of the crimes they’ve committed. Lark refuses to cooperate because he believes Kane became “corrupted” immediately after going on his quest. Lark decides he’s the only Anointed One who can save what is left of the Fellowship. Once he escapes confinement, Lark meets Calvin, an outsider—a super nerd and a professional cosplayer—who is willing to assist Lark on his quest by any means necessary. Accompanying them is Calvin’s friend, Lillian, who is a part-time podcaster. Meanwhile, accompanying Agent Miller’s search for Lark is Deryn, Lark’s older sibling. They were one of the first Anointed Ones before Nova stripped that title from them—as a child—for unknown reasons. They are willing to put an end to the Fellowship due to the harsh treatment they received. All of these characters develop as the story progresses, and readers learn quickly that they are not only individuals who are trying to debunk lies, but also are complex people who had their choices taken away from them, and they are seeking ways to reclaim their lives. It should be mentioned that while Nova is the villain, she is NOT the antagonist. One of the characters mentioned is Lark’s antagonist, but do you know who it is?

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is a twist on “the hero’s quest.” But instead of the “hero” leaving to “save the world,” the hero is on a “quest” to prove magic is real and the Fellowship is not the “corrupted F.O.E.” The second plot is the investigation of the Fellowship, which is a cult. Readers learn about the cult’s origins, and how and why Kane decided to “betray” the Fellowship. There is one subplot and it develops alongside the two plots, and it is central to the story. The subplot involves the trauma suffered by all of the characters; and, the common theme involves fantasy and gaming. Remember, 2 of the characters did not suffer within the Fellowship, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have personal demons and reality to face. Please keep in mind the trauma suffered by the Fellowship includes: physical and emotional abuse, family separation, isolation, torture, and sexual abuse. While this subplot is essential to the plots, such incidents are common and occur more often than is reported. In other words, the reality within the fiction is too palpable to ignore.

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Lark, Kane, Deryn and Calvin. They are all reliable narrators because what they experience relates to the conflicts within the story: the influence the Fellowship has had on the characters and whether or not magic exists. The narrative alternates based on which character is narrating the story. Lark and Calvin’s narratives are in 1st-person and follows a sequence which is told in the present. Lark and Calvin are on a quest, and it takes them further away from what they know as they believe they are getting closer towards fulfilling their quest. Deryn’s narrative is told in 1st-person and is told in the present. Deryn travels with Agent Miller in order to track down Lark. However, Deryn isn’t looking for Lark just because he is their sibling, but because they want vengeance for the treatment they and the others who are not “Anointed Ones” were subjected to by Nova. The more time Deryn spends with Agent Miller, the more of their memories begin to resurface, and they realize there is truth behind Kane’s actions. Kane’s narrative is told in 1st-person, but the sequence is presented in the past. This is because Kane’s narrative is his testimony against the Fellowship to the F.B.I. It is through Kane’s memories and flashbacks (not the same thing), readers learn what really was going on within the Fellowship and how Kane was able to interpret the lies and the abuse in Nova’s teachings, and why he decided to betray them, knowing they were a cult. The narrative goes back-and-forth between the present and the past and it moves among the characters so that the story is complete without any bias, which is essential when referring to cults.

            The style K.M. Szpara uses in First, Become Ashes is a homage to the nerd fandom. Several allusions to fantasy novels, video games, anime, cosplayers, comic-cons, etc., make their way into this novel, and it balances the atmosphere and the conflict presented in the story. And, as a member of this fandom, the message is clear, there is a minuscule part of us who desire such aspects to be real. That is not to say that every mundane thing within our reality can be explained—there are a few living things which break the laws of science (i.e. bumblebees, dolphins, butterflies and moths, etc.)—but, how many people are willing to believe in “other explanations”? Nevertheless, this novel is a cautionary tale as to what can happen when individuals use people in order to fulfill their twisted desires. Both the villain and the antagonist use Lark (and the other members of the Fellowship) to get what they want—one wants dominance and the other wants their beliefs to be validated—and, both leave Lark a broken individual who believes he has to go on his quest so that everything he went through wasn’t for nothing. The mood in this novel is wishfulness. All of the characters long for something, and some of them are willing to do anything to fulfill it. The tone in this novel is the brutality these characters are willing to put themselves through, especially with the conflict of the individual versus society. Keep in mind such treatment and desire can manifest anywhere, and are not limited to cults. 

            The appeal for First, Become Ashes will be positive with discretion. The novel has LGBTQIA+ characters, but the presentation of the cult and the treatment will receive the most attention and criticism. Once again, this book has a Trigger Warning of sadomasochism, sexual and physical and emotional abuse, and it should not be read by anyone who either has issues with these topics or has undergone similar experiences. That being said, this novel will be praised for its themes of “living in the real world,” “life is not a fantasy (story),” and “not everything can provide an explanation.” This novel belongs in the speculative fiction canon in the subgenres urban fantasy and low fantasy. An urban fantasy is a fantasy story associated with rural settings adapted to specific (and often actual) locations. A low fantasy—the opposite of high fantasy—is a fantasy story which presents nonrational occurrences without any causality because they happen in a rational world where such things are not supposed to happen (this story is NOT magic realism!). So, fans of American Gods by Neil Gaiman and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin will enjoy this book the most. I believe gamers and cosplayers will enjoy this book, too because of the social commentary and the (familiar) criticism mentioned throughout the novel. 

            First, Become Ashes is an excellent blend of fantasy and reality, and a great social commentary. This is one of those books in which the conflict is more memorable than the characters, and that’s a good thing because this plot device will keep readers immersed from start to end, similar to a great video game. It’s hard to believe this is the author’s 2nd novel, but it means readers can look forward to more works from him in the future! 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

TBRcon21: Another Success for Virtual Cons

It’s 2021, the pandemic is ongoing, and it still sucks. Fortunately, we’ve gotten better at entertaining ourselves through our hobbies and interests. Readers and bookbloggers have been able to make the most of lockdown by reading (or, trying to read) our TBR piles and helping authors and publishers with promoting any books we get our hands on! Technology continues to be a lifesaver as we all continue to find ways to keep up with news surrounding our favorite authors and any upcoming book releases.

            David Walters—a.k.a. FanFiAddict—impressed everyone last spring with last year’s “MayDayCon2020” where he hosted 7 panels and 7 live readings in 14 hours! This time around, FanFiAddict reached out to a few of his fellow bookbloggers—Beth Tabler, Travis Tippens (from The Fantasy Inn), and Jason, a.k.a. Traveling Cloak—to assist with “TBRcon2021.” This virtual Con had 17 panels across 6 days, with several of our favorite speculative fiction authors participating in the panels discussing numerous topics within the genre, and about writing in general. In fact, I’m going to say that it was because of the “Writerly Advice—NOT” panel that led to #writingadvice trending on Twitter (with some “interesting” responses).

            Without listing all of the authors, this virtual con had authors ranging from debut to indie to “established” ones across the speculative fiction genre—epic fantasy, grimdark, space operas, historical fantasy, etc.—and, all of the S.P.F.B.O. finalists were there too, with the Con ending with a round of Dungeons & Dragons. So, what made this virtual Con so memorable? First, as I mentioned before, was the authors. Just about all of the subgenres and genres were represented by the participants—whom were from diverse backgrounds and from around the world (i.e. Australia)! Next, were the topics discussed on each panel. Topics from world-building to history to the future of the genre were talked about, and it was interesting to hear what each author had to say about them. Last, was the schedule. While it was impressive how David managed to host the first Con in a day by himself, how he managed to get even more authors to participate in 1 or more panels for a 6-day event is beyond laudable. Yes, this virtual Con was free, and could be viewed on YouTube, Twitch and Facebook, but I would argue that this is further proof that these virtual Cons are worthy fillers for all author events while the pandemic continues (yes, I want it to end, too).

            “TBRcon21” had something for everyone, and you can rewatch these panels online. Another reason I’m discussing virtual Cons again is because of what I believe fans are getting out of them. Although several Cons have moved to virtual, not all of them are accessible for everyone. Everyone who is interested has to register for tickets, and there are times when they sell out. It is too early to tell what will happen to virtual Cons whenever “normalcy” returns, but I don’t believe they will go away. This Con is proof authors are interested in interacting with fans and readers, and those fans and readers will find ways to attend these events. I hope agents, marketers and publishers are paying attention because it looks like bookbloggers have found a way to bridge themselves between the publishing industry and the readers who Google whether or not they should read a particular book. And before you ask, I’m not excluding BookTubers. In fact, if these virtual Cons were to become more ubiquitous, then I believe some BookTubers could give us a hand with certain panels. While we’re on the subject, I know some podcasters who would be interested in participating as well. 

            “TBRcon21” is another accomplishment by FanFiAddict, and it is proof the publishing industry is paying attention to us, and authors are willing to communicate with their fans and vice versa, and will find ways to keep at it no matter what it takes. So, what shall we do as we all decompress from this event? Well, Virginia McClain will be hosting “QuaranCon2021” this spring, and I’m looking forward to it. I hope to see more participants (and authors) at that event this year! I hope to see you all there participating in the live chats!

Speculative Fiction Starters for Children and Young Adults

This article was written for the Martian Chronicle blog, but it was never posted so I decided to rewrite and to present it on my blog. Enjoy!

            When children and adolescents show an interest in reading, we—as adults, and as readers ourselves—want nothing more than to load our recommendations and favorite books on to them. Unfortunately, not only will this overwhelm young readers, but also turn them off to reading the books we want them to read (outside of school reading). One of the reasons for this is because many adults fail to pay attention to the genre of literature the kids are reading. If a teen is reading non-fiction, then they’re not going to be interested in historical fiction. If a child enjoys fairy tales, then giving them a book about aliens might not capture their attention. In addition, suggesting “popular” (i.e. Percy Jackson, Magic Tree House, etc.) books isn’t the way to go because those readers might have read those books already. Knowing the books within a preferred genre is worth reading and it will keep the interest of reading in children and in adolescents. 

            When it comes to speculative fiction, adults tend to select the “typical” and/or the “popular” books of the genre to give to children and to young adults. And, there is nothing wrong with choosing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Watership Down. However, there are so many other books to give to these young readers and the genre has expanded so much that it can feeling overwhelming for everyone. That being said, here are some recommended books for young readers who are fans of the speculative fiction genre. 

CHILDREN

  1. The Wizard of Oz: The Complete Collection by L. Frank Baum

There are 14 books in this series which is often compared to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Several books, including the 1st book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, does follow Dorothy and her dog, Toto, on their many adventures in Oz, but the series gives readers more insight into the entire world through several other characters who live in different parts of Oz. Think of them as “modern” American fairy tales. 

  • The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black

Holly Black is more known for her young adult books, but she has co-written this series—and, a sequel series—with Tony DiTerlizzi; and yes, the books are better than the movie. This series follows twin brothers, Jared and Simon Grace, and their older sister, Mallory, as they move into their family manor. As they unpack, they wonder if there is something, or someone, else living in the house. When Jared finds a “field guide” that belonged to their great-uncle who disappeared over 80 years ago, Jared, Simon, and Mallory learn that their backyard is home to numerous magical creatures, both good and bad.

  • Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

DO NOT CALL THIS BOOK, “HOGWARTS IN AFRICA,” because it is NOT THAT!!! This book will remind readers of Rick Riordan and Ursula K. LeGuin, in which “gifted” children attend a school where they learn magic that is based on their heritage. Sunny and her friends learn how to hone their abilities which is based on African shamanism and cultural practices. The plot alone makes this book and its sequel, Akata Warrior, stand apart from other “magic school” stories. 

  • Young Wizards by Diane Duane

What if wizardry and magic weren’t just about casting spells, but protecting the entire galaxy? What if your spell book was real and you had to be able to read the language its written in in order to cast spells? This series, which started in 1983 with So You Want to Be a Wizard, follows Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez as they begin their careers as wizards. After completing their “Ordeal,” the two friends travel throughout Earth, to Mars, and to the rest of the galaxy as they work on their tasks using scientific spells. Currently, there are 10 books in the series, and each one sees the development of the young wizards. 

This horror story will make readers question whether or not their local urban legends are real. The story follows 11-year-old Ollie, who is grieving the death of her mother. One day after school, Ollie sees a crazed woman yelling at a book and threatening to throw it into the river. Ollie steals the book and begins to read it. She reads about two brothers who were in love with the same woman, and a deal they made with “the smiling man.” Ollie believes what she’s reading is just a story until her school bus breaks down and her broken watch “warns” her to “RUN.” 

YOUNG ADULT

  1. Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe, translated by Alexander O. Smith

This book won the Batchelder Award in 2008, and it was written for children as young as 8-years-old. However, this book can be enjoyed by adolescents; and yes, the fact that the book is more than 800 pages long is another reason this book is recommended for adolescent readers. The story follows Wataru Mitani as he goes on a quest in another world to save his parents’ marriage. The difference here is that this story is written in a style that appeals to gamers, especially fans of (Japanese) role-playing games, or RPGs. Fans of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and Final Fantasy will love this story.

  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

What if your father was a famous storyteller who receives his stories from a river of dreams? What happens when that river stops flowing and your father can no longer perform his job? Join Haroun as he journeys to defeat the dark force that is halting the flow of the river, and the stories, which flow to his father. This is a very unusual quest.

  • Memories of the Eagle and the Jaguar Trilogy by Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

15-year-old Alexander Cold is sent to stay with his grandmother who works for International Geographic. Her latest assignment takes both of them on an expedition to the Amazon. There, Alex meets Nadia Santos, and the two friends go on an adventure through the Amazon, where they learn about their spirit guides, which are in the forms of animals, so that they can save an ancient city from ruin. Isabel Allende’s YA trilogy, which starts with, City of the Beasts, follows the protagonists’ adventures both in the Himalayas and in Kenya as well. 

This book, which is set in a futuristic war-torn Nigeria, was influenced by the anime series (and its many spinoff series), Gundam. Onyii and Ify are sisters who live in a camp with other orphaned girls that is isolated from the ongoing civil war. However, after an attack on the camp, the sisters are separated and find themselves on opposite sides of the war. In a future where space colonies, A.I.s, and flying mechs exist, how does a war end when both sides have advanced technology. Will Onyii and Ify survive the war and reunite? 

  • Tamora Pierce Pantheon

For almost 40 years, Tamora Pierce has written stories of several characters through generations in the world of Tortall. Alanna: The First Adventure was released in 1983, and it follows Alanna as she and her twin brother, Thom, switch places in order to go to the school they want to attend. Thom goes to school to train as a mage, and Alanna travels to the King’s castle to train as a knight. There is only one problem. Females haven’t trained to be knights in over 400 years. This means Alanna will have to disguise herself as a boy so that she can become the knight she wants to be. And, that’s just the first quartet in that universe! There are a lot more stories about different girls learning and growing into strong women that take place inside and outside Tortall. 

These are a few of several books and series available for young readers of speculative fiction. Now, some of these authors have written other books for children and for adolescents, and I recommend those books as well. This is a starting point for young readers who want to read books that might not receive the recognition they deserve. Yes, let them read Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Earthsea Cycle and the Rick Riordan Pantheon; but, these fantasy, horror, science fiction, fairy tale, and magic realism stories are worth reading, too. I hope you enjoy them all as much as I do!

Why You Need to Read: “Across the Green Grass Fields”

Wayward Children, #6: Across the Green Grass Fields

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 12, 2021

Genre: Fantasy

            It had been so long since there was a human in the Hooflands. She didn’t like to consider what might be ahead of them that was bad enough to require human intervention. Humans were heroes and lightning rods for disaster, and none of those stories she’d heard about them when she was a filly had ended gently from them, or for the people around them, (8: Time and Transformation). 

            Destiny vs. chance; fate vs. free will. These opposites are disputed more often than we want to admit. Is it destiny, or did your choices lead you to this moment? Did fate or chance determine your current circumstances? Regardless of ANY beliefs—religious or not—just about every individual has debated these questions among others, or between their personal thoughts. In speculative fiction—particularly in fantasy—this debate is investigated further by including prophecies in the plot(s) of the stories. Nowadays, many fantasy authors go into the “dangers of prophecies” and how it can bring about more harm than good, emphasizing how free will is a more “realistic” approach to fantasy stories. This is one of the several messages that can be found in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, and the debate between destiny and chance comes up in the latest book in the series, Across the Green Grass Fields

            The protagonist in this book is Regan Lewis, and when readers first meet her, she is 7-years-old. This is significant because one day, during recess, one of her friends—Heather Nelson—brings a garter snake to show off to her and their other friend—Laurel Anderson. While Regan is fascinated with the snake, Laurel is disgusted with it and slaps it out of Heather’s hand. Laurel states that “girls don’t play with disgusting things like that,” because a first grader believes she knows more about the world than her friends. From that day into the 4th grade, Heather is ostracized by her classmates and Regan remains “friends” with Laurel due to fear of the same thing happening to her. The one thing Regan loves which is considered to be “girly” is horses, which her parents—who love her tremendously—indulge her. However, Regan learns at 10-years-old that she is not “completely female” due to an “anomaly.” This leads to Regan confiding in Laurel (which, was foolish), which causes Regan to flee her school in tears. As Regan is making the long walk home, she finds a Door and walks through it. Regan finds herself in Hooflands—where all mystical horse creatures reside—and is adopted by a herd of centaurs: Pansy, Chicory, Rose, Lily, Clover, Lilac, Bramble and Daisy (notice a pattern here?). Throughout her time in Hooflands, Regan is able to grow into the person she wants to be without the social constraints and the gender role expectations of her (our) world. Regan experiences the same amount of love with the herd as she did with her parents; and, she has a “true” friend in Chicory, something Regan realizes she never had with Laurel. The centaur herd, like Regan’s parents, do everything they can to keep her safe, while keeping her informed about the world around her. Regan grows up realizing that one’s sex and gender doesn’t define an individual, and she is able to think the same way when confronted about “why she was brought to Hooflands.” 

            The plot in this book surrounds the idea of friendship. As cliché as that sounds, Regan’s growth focuses on what having and being a friend entails. Yes, Regan was 7-year-old when she stopped being Heather’s friend in favor of Laurel, but such things and worse are everyday occurrences with children and adolescents (I am an educator, and I can attest to A LOT of schoolyard—and cyber—bullying). Regan—who knows she doesn’t have any friends amongst her classmates—confided her “secret” to Laurel because she didn’t have anyone else to talk to; and, knowing what Laurel’s reaction will lead to, Regan runs away. Regan learns what real friendship is in Hooflands and worries her “predestined task”—something she doesn’t believe in—will bring it all to an end, and she doesn’t want that to happen. The second plot in this book centers on the choices all of the characters make, and the “what ifs” asked by all of them. Regan realizes Heather would have been a better friend than Laurel. Regan’s parents should have given their daughter more time to process the life-changing news they had to tell her. The centaurs make many choices, which they know they had to live with, from protecting Regan to choosing husbands. By the end of the story, Regan is able to make her “ultimate” choice because she witnesses the consequences which outweigh the benefits. There is one subplot in this novella and it involves Regan’s sex (she is intersex). While this revelation comes as a shock to her and causes her to worry about how she’ll be perceived by her peers and everyone else in society, Regan experiences some of the “benefits” which she uses to her advantage unknowingly, especially for someone who loves to ride horses. The subplot is essential to the plots in this story because the subplot drives the entire story. 

            The narrative of this book is told from Regan’s point-of-view and in the past sequence. This is NOT a flashback, but a look back at what happened to Regan from when she was 7-years-old to when she is 16-years-old. The narrative is told in 3rd person omniscient (readers get insight to what happens to Regan’s parents and other characters) and through Regan’s stream-of-consciousness. Given everything Regan goes through and the growth that results from it make her a reliable narrator. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in Across the Green Grass Fields is part homage and part criticism of popular children’s media, particularly of the TV cartoon, My Little Pony (the first variant was based on the toys from the 1980s), and of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. First, let me say many of you will make the comparison to the Oz series by L. Frank Baum—and, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, thinking over what led to the protagonist making her choice has resulted with me leaning more towards Lewis over Baum; and, I might be wrong in that as well. Anyway, the author has explained to her fans how a beloved cartoon series contained a lot of danger in a world of horse creatures. Not to mention, McGuire’s view on what happens to the human character, Meghan, makes you reconsider what you think you know about My Little Pony, fairy tales and magic. As for The Chronicles of Narnia, think about the premise made by the Narnians whenever a human—“a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve”—appears in Narnia. Those humans are expected to live up to a role which was “predestined” for them, and they must go along with it because “it is was they’re supposed to do.” McGuire allowed her protagonist to be more mindful about certain things and to consider how such beliefs and notions can affect everyone, something this character is very familiar with. The idea of destiny versus free will is explored in books by Brandon Sanderson, Katherine Arden and Jenn Lyons (and even more authors). The mood in this novella is anticipation of what is coming. The tone focuses on the choices that are made in response to the anticipation of the inevitable. Once again, Rovina Cai provides the illustrations in this book. This time, those illustrations are spread out more in the book and I want to say it is because more emphasis is placed on the world of Hooflands instead of its inhabitants (many of the readers know what minotaurs, unicorns, kirins, etc. look like).  

            The appeal for this novella have ranged from mixed to positive. So far, some of the readers have said that this book is not their favorite in the series, but they still enjoyed it. Other readers (and reviewers) have been very critical about certain parts of the story, especially the ending. Everyone is allowed to have their opinions, and I can see where many of them are coming from. Yet, I do agree with one statement about this book in the Wayward Children series, it can be read by middle grade aged readers (ages 8-12)—as long as they are mature enough to deal with the book’s content. This is because the context and the characters mirror their age group the best. That being said, I believe this book continues with the theme of “cautionary tales” fans have picked up on throughout the series. Adolescent and adult readers are forced to recall their experiences as (or with) schoolgirls and how those notions continue to influence and to hinder each new generation of young girls. And, for those of you who do not believe girls are not “vicious” should re-watch Mean Girls or any “cat fights” videos on YouTube. Across the Green Grass Fields is a great addition to the series and it will be enjoyed by fans of the series. Furthermore, we have to wait another year until we get to read the next book in the series, Where the Drowned Girls Go. Who knows, maybe we’ll meet up with Regan again? 

            Across the Green Grass Fields in the most amiable book in the Wayward Children series so far, but it is not without the threat of danger fans know to expect from Seanan McGuire. This novella about young girls and horses is a much-needed commentary about choices, femininity and friendship. Say whatever you want about this book, but there is little girl you know who wishes there was a world of horse beings where you get to talk and to ride them all day long!

I was able to get this DVD during a bargain sale! I still remember watching these episodes on Saturday mornings on the Disney Channel!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).

Why You Need to Read: “Come Tumbling Down”

Wayward Children, #5: Come Tumbling Down

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 7, 2020

Genre: Fantasy/Horror

            “Everyone who comes here becomes a monster: you, me, your sister, everyone,” said Mary, voice low and fast and urgent. “The doors only open for the monsters in waiting. But you made the right choice when you left this castle, because you would have been the worst monster of them all if you had grown up in a vampire’s care.”

            “I know,” said Jack… (13: The Broken Crown).

            Responsibility is a trait which marks the coming of adulthood. The older we get, the more responsibility we get whether or not we want it. The concept of being responsible follows the practice of being reliable to others and being held accountable for your actions both good and bad. Even adults don’t always know who is reliable and who isn’t. Children and adolescents are given the benefit of the doubt due to their youth. However, once society deems the youth as “old enough to know better,” society expects the youth to follow the rules and obey the laws, or face the consequences. The Wayward Children series is about children and adolescents who traveled to other worlds for various reasons, and there are those who were kicked out of those worlds because they broke the rules. But, what happens when a traveler believes the rules shouldn’t apply to them? Fans of the series know of one example thanks to the past events in In An Absent Dream, but the author presents readers with an example occurring in the present in Come Tumbling Down.

            Readers catch up with the misfits at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children: Christopher, who traveled to Mariposa; Cora, a Drowned Girl; Kade, a hero of Fairyland and headmaster-in-training; and Sumi, who—thanks to the events in Beneath the Sugar Sky—is alive and her old self again. It seems like an ordinary day at school, until lightning strikes the basement and a Door appears, but none of the students recognize it as theirs. This is because the Door swings inward revealing a large girl carrying a smaller one in her arms. No one recognizes the first girl, but the other girl is one of the Wolcott twins, but which one? It turns out that it’s Jack, but she’s in Jill’s body. Jack didn’t give her consent for the body swap; not to mention, Jack and Jill aren’t identical twins anymore since Jill’s death and resurrection. Jill’s death was one of two punishments she was dealt as consequence for breaking the rules in the Moors. Jill either had to remain in her world, or return after dying where she can no longer become a vampire. The problem was Jill proved to be as ruthless in our world as she is in the Moors, forcing Jack to make a decision to save her sister from herself. Unfortunately, everything blows up in Jack’s face, and Jill and her Master have decided to wreak havoc on the Moors, prompting a war between mad scientist and vampire, and between identical twin sisters. Jack flees the Moors with her fiancé, Alexis, to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children so she can get help with getting her body back from Jill and save her Home. Throughout the story, readers learn more about Jack: what she’s been up to since returning to the Moors, and her future plans there with Dr. Bleak and Alexis. Jack is able to open herself up more to her former schoolmates than she was able to while staying at the school, which is a huge development for her character—and, as a (fictional) individual. Another character who develops in this story is Cora, but not in the “traditional” way. Cora—like the other students—hopes to return Home. However, it seems Cora has a deeper connection to the Drowned Worlds than everyone realizes, including Cora. 

            The plot in this story is sibling rivalry to extreme levels. Jack and Jill were kicked out of the Moors for Jill’s crimes (in Down Among the Sticks and Bones) and Jack made the decision to “change” Jill so both of them could return Home (in Every Heart A Doorway). Unfortunately for Jack, Jill views her twin’s actions as NOT “saving” her, but as “stealing eternity away from her.” Jill sees getting Jack’s body as a way to get everything she wants and damn the consequences. There are 2 main problems with this nonconsensual body swap. First, is that Jill and her Master believe they have found a loophole in the order of the Moors, but the rules in the Moors are strict and valid, and those in charge will NOT allow these transgressions to continue. Second, is Jack has OCD and she cannot cope with being in Jill’s body because of what the Master did to it; and, Jack has no intention of becoming a vampire, so she has to get her body back before the next full moon. There are 2 subplots in this story. The first is the concept of Death within some of these worlds. Just like in Confection, death isn’t permanent in the Moors. However, there are setbacks to being resurrected in the Moors—the body loses its function after each one—and time is of the essence. The second is the continued world-building of the Moors. We learn—through the other characters—how vast the world of the Moors is and about the Powers who run the Moors making sure ALL rules are followed. The subplots are necessary because they develop alongside the plot. Plus, everyone learns quickly how much trouble Jill is in for going against the order of the Moors. 

            The narrative follows a present sequence with moments of recounting the past (which is not the same as a flashback). It is presented in 3rd person omniscient from the points-of-view of Christopher, Cora and Jack. Readers learn how the Moors affect these characters who either reside in the Moors, or traveled to worlds similar to them—the Trenches and Mariposa. The streams-of-consciousness of the characters allow for the readers to experience Jack’s OCD, Cora’s attraction to the Drowned Worlds, and Christopher’s admiration and creepiness for the Moors make them all reliable narrators. 

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in Come Tumbling Down is a return to the concept of duality. However, unlike the idea of binary—which, was explored in Down Among the Sticks and Bones—the concept of oppositions is the focus. Identical twins find themselves on opposing sides of a challenge, which could evolve into a war, and their mentors are based on 2 of the most popular classic literary books and film characters: Frankenstein and Dracula. The allusions to both Vincent Price and the nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill, lets readers know there has to be a victor. The realization Jack admits about Jill make it obvious as to what must happen. The mood in the story is one of urgency. Everything in the Moors from the residents’ safety to Jack’s sanity is on the verge of being destroyed and Jack and her companions have 3 days to set things right. The tone in this story revolves around the outcome based on the urgency to answer the challenge. Jack and Jill are on opposing sides and the victor will determine the outcome of the balance within the Moors. There is more at stake than a stolen body, but one side doesn’t seem to care as long as they get what they want. Rovina Cai’s illustrations provide the extra context to the story as required. 

            The appeal for Come Tumbling Down have been positive. Fans of the Wayward Children series enjoyed this latest installment in the series as they travel with the students on another quest—remember, it’s against the rules to go on quests. And, while this portal-quest fantasy novella is a great addition to the fantasy canon, fans of horror will enjoy this book, too. The next book in the series, Across the Green Grass Fields, will bring readers back to the past.

            Come Tumbling Down is a fun story which balances adventure and rule-breaking as the characters and the readers return to the Moors. While it seems like this is the end of Jack and Jill’s story (for now?), I have an inkling we could return to the Moors. It might not be anytime soon, but readers will be satisfied with the ending, until the next adventure.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5)!