Friday, July 15, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: DEBBI (Helen of Mars, #0.5) / George Ebey

TITLE: DEBBI (Helen of Mars, #0.5)
AUTHOR: George Ebey
PUBLISHER: Glass House Press
AVAILABILITY: Barnes & Noble



GENRE
Young Adult - Science Fiction

REVIEW
In the not-so-distant future, gamer girl and engineering prodigy Helen Hunter enters a prestigious battle bot competition sponsored MARSCORP, a company that sends rovers to mine Mars. Except she's not just doing it for the thrill of it. MARSCORP has grown notorious for making lots of money off the dreams of would-be Mars explorers--by selling them expensive equipment and whatnot then taking a cut of their revenues in exchange for giving them a chance to profit from Mars' rich ore deposits. In that sense, they're rather like scammy, leeching self-publishing outfits (*cough* Author Solutions *cough*) that reap unscrupulous profits off the dreams of authors with their overpriced and often terrible services. Sorry for getting a little off-topic... Just wanted to show y'all how evil this bad-guy corporation is ;-).

Anyway, Helen's dad, certain that his knowledge of geography will give him an edge over the competition, is determined to send a rover to Mars despite the financial risks. Helen, a practical and mature teen, fears that his ambition will lead their family to ruin. And so she enters the competition in hopes of winning the grand prize: a free Mars rover that will let her dad chase his dream without possibly losing the house.

DEBBI is Helen's bot, which she built herself and controls with the help of her fellow gamer girl and BFF, Misty. This novella is a short, fun little read full of robot battles and nerdy references... catnip for a nerdy gal like me! And can I just say, how awesome is it to see an unapologetically nerdy teen girl as the heroine of her own story? STEM girls rule!


Brave New Girls cover
Okay, disclosure time. Not only do George and I share a publisher (Glass House Press), but I was also a huge fan of Helen going in. The first story starring Helen (which actually takes place after DEBBI), titled Helen of Mars, was one of the shorts in the anthology I co-edited, BRAVE NEW GIRLS: TALES OF GIRLS AND GADGETS (we donate all proceeds from sales to the Society of Women Engineers' scholarship fund, so if you want to find out what happens to Helen next and support a good cause... *hint hint nudge nudge*). Does this make me biased? Well, I'm always going to be biased toward stories featuring smart, independent heroines, especially STEM-y ones, so...
Helen of Mars illustration

Back to DEBBI! In this little novella, George Ebey paints an awesome near-future sci-fi world. The concept feels like something that could actually happen... dare I call this hard sci-fi? The robot battles are really fun to read, full of detail and action and strategy and some amazing visuals. Helen's the kind of character you eagerly root for. She's bright and determined, and though she's somewhat shy, she doesn't take crap from anyone. So if you like girl engineers and robot battles, you should totally check this one out!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
George Ebey is the author of the forthcoming Phoenix Saga, a series of fantasy adventure tales for young readers soon to be published by Glass House Press.

Prior to turning to the world of Middle Grade and Young Adult adventure, he got his start by writing works of mystery and suspense. Ebey’s previous titles include: Broken Clock; The Red Bag; Dimensions: Tales of Suspense; and Widowfield.

These days he’s proud to be an author with Glass House Press as well a contributor to the International Thriller Writer’s online webzine,The Big Thrill.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Viral Airwaves / Claudie Arseneault

TITLE: Viral Airwaves
AUTHOR: Claudie Arseneault
PUBLISHER: Incandescent Phoenix Books
AVAILABILITY: Amazon



GENRE
Science Fiction--Dystopia/Solarpunk

REVIEW
Years ago, a deadly plague devastated the world and claimed Henry Schmitt's mother. A new power rose from the aftermath, uniting multiple nations under one totalitarian banner. Though Henry just wants to lay low and eat his instant noodles (and boy, does he love those damn noodles!), his life is upended one evening when a mysterious man comes to his home--pursued by a soldier hellbent on capturing him. 

The soldier, it turns out, is Hans Vermen, an army captain known for rounding up members of a ragtag rebel group hiding in the mountains. And his quarry is the rebel leader, Seraphin, also known as the White Renegade. Henry hopes to resume his humdrum existence even after the confrontation between the two, but soon finds himself pulled into a revolutionary movement he has no stomach for. After learning an earth-shattering secret left behind by his late father--one that could shake the nation to the core--Henry realizes he has no choice but to step up for the first time in his life. And so armed with a hot air balloon, radio waves, and a determined sense of what's right, Henry sets off to unleash a truth that could change the world.

Man, I really enjoyed this book! I've always been a big fan of rebel stories--from Star Wars to V for Vendetta to the Lunar Chronicles, etc.--and I'm happy to add Claudie Arseneault's VIRAL AIRWAVES to my collection of "dogged underdog" stories. First off, Henry is a delightful protagonist. He's not just a reluctant hero--he's an incompetent one who has to figure out what this whole rebel business even means. He can't shoot, can't strategize, can't even work up the courage to leave home at first... He's as unlikely as they come. And seeing a character start from such a place and then grow into the hero of the story is incredibly satisfying. Also, he's very sympathetic, believable, and relatable. Because let's face it: If this world turned into a dystopia, most of us would probably be Henrys.

The book also features a fantastic cast of supporting characters. Actually, I'm not sure if "supporting" is the right word, since one of them feels more like a co-protagonist. Hans Vermen is cast as a villain of sorts initially--an establishment crony responsible for the deaths of many of the good guys' friends. Yet his backstory is plenty sympathetic--he became such a single-minded hunter of rebels after their leader killed his brother, and everything he does ultimately comes from a place of love and grief. You soon get the feeling that the Union was using that love and grief to fashion him into a weapon, practically to the point of brainwashing. When a rebel named Andreal shows kindness and generosity in spite of his past, Hans begins questioning his worldview, and we're set up for a fantastic redemption arc. And boy, do I love me some redemption arcs! I really loved watching his character develop over the course of the book as he's forced to confront himself and decide what kind of person he wants to be. And I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to reveal that he also wrestles with his sexuality, adding a compelling facet to his character and some much-needed gay rep to the world of sci-fi.

VIRAL AIRWAVES also features really interesting world-building, depicting an alternate world (possibly Earth, possibly not) in which petroleum is all but gone, and so most technology is distinctly old-fashioned. Airships, balloons, radios, and pistols. The rebels dwell in a low-tech mountain hideout consisting mostly of caves and tunnels. Yet there are hints that the world used to house more advanced technology, which gives the book a "regressive future" type of feel. A little post-apocalyptic, and yet almost idyllic in some ways. The world wasn't destroyed; humanity just scaled back.

Though Henry is ostensibly the main character, this book is about more than one young man's journey. It's the story about characters within a larger world, with multiple plotlines that diverge, then intersect, then diverge, then intersect, weaving in and out of each other to form a riveting narrative about revolution, friendship, and finding out not just who you are, but who you could be. It's got thrilling twists, exciting action, touching character relationships, and some quirky humor (especially in the bits starring Henry "Noodle Man" Schmitt). I stayed up way too late two nights in a row reading this book and was rather sad when it was over, because it's just that good.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stories have always been an important part of my life. From reading to roleplaying to writing, I can’t think of a moment characters haven’t lived in my head and I’m proud to be able to share them at last. I'm a proud asexual writer from Quebec City, lover of squids and hot air balloon, and I aim to provide awesome LGBTQIAP+ science fiction and fantasy!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Here's my Shore Leave schedule!

Hey everyone! This weekend is Shore Leave, a fan-run sci-fi/fantasy convention in Hunt Valley, MD
(near Baltimore). I'll be speaking on a few panels and hustling in the Dealer's Room. Here's my panel schedule:

Friday, July 15

6PM-7PM Why We Love Sci-Fi (Hunt Room)


Saturday, July 16

12PM-1PM Kick Ass Women Heroes (Salon A)


Sunday, July 17

11AM-12PM Step One: Writing! Step Three: Published (Derby)

3PM-4PM Does Author Gender Matter? (Chase)

4PM-5PM Connecting With Readers in the Modern World (Concierge)

You can also find me in the Dealer's Room all three days. The Dealer's Room hours are:

Friday: 2PM-8PM
Saturday: 10AM-7PM
Sunday: 10AM-5PM

Hope to see y'all at Shore Leave!

Monday, July 11, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Shadowshaper (Shadowshaper, #1) / Daniel Jose Older

Title: Shadowshaper (Shadowshaper, #1)
Author: Daniel Jose Older
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Availability: Amazon (and more)



GENRE
Young Adult--Urban Fantasy

REVIEW
There's been a lot of praise for Daniel Jose Older's YA urban fantasy SHADOWSHAPER, and let me start by telling you that it's all merited. Every last bit. This is an incredibly well-written book that combines the fun of teen adventures with rich cultural details.

Sierra Santiago plans to spend her summer painting murals and hanging out with her friends in their Brooklyn neighborhood. But then a painting starts crying real tears, and soon, a zombie-like creature attacks, throwing Sierra's world into disarray. Sierra, with the help of a fellow artist named Robbie, starts piecing together clues from the past and discovers the world of shadowshaping—using magic to infuse spirits into art. Her own familial bonds to the magic turn out to be stronger than she could have imagined—which is both thrilling and dangerous. Someone is killing off the shadowshapers, and Sierra soon finds herself a target.

Holy moly, this was a good book! Full of humor, adventure, magic, thrills, and a fantastic cast of characters, SHADOWSHAPER had me hooked from the start. I loved everything about it—the voice, the plot, the characters, the setting, the descriptions, the magic… Like I said, everything. I got this one on audio, and Anika Noni Rose's amazing narration gave it extra sparkle, breathing life into an already vivacious tale. The right narrator can make or break an audiobook, and I'm happy to say that Rose took SHADOWSHAPER to the next level.

Confession time: I actually finished this book about three months ago and have been meaning to write a review ever since. Why the procrastinating? Well, frankly it's my reviewer insecurity kicking in. This happens when I read a book so good, I don't even know how to adequately express why I love it. And then I feel like I'm short-changing a book I adore. But what can I do other than gush in my own way?

Sierra is a smart, funny, strong, confident, independent young heroine who's easy to love. She's proud of her heritage and won't stand for any old-school prejudices, even when it comes from within her own family. She's a heroine for a new generation, one that's more diverse and aware of the prejudices that plague us and, frankly, tired of reading about the same types of (straight/white/male) protagonists over and over. I loved how Sierra's Puerto Rican heritage is an integral part of who she is—from her family life to how she presents herself to the origins of the magic.

Not only is SHADOWSHAPER an important book for tackling matters of racism and sexism and colorism, it's also just a damn good story. Teens wielding magic, searching for clues in a frenetic city, and taking on a dastardly villain? Who doesn't love a fun adventure like that? Part of what makes this book so brilliant is how it weaves its social commentary seamlessly into the story, so you're absorbing its themes and messages while following Sierra on a supernatural quest for answers.

Anyway, better commentators than me have written worthier reviews of this amazing book—take one look at the Editorial Reviews on Amazon to see what I mean. I just want to say that I highly, highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend SHADOWSHAPER (especially the audiobook version) and I can't say enough how much I loved it. And I was soooooo excited when I found out that there will be TWO SEQUELS! That's right, this is a trilogy opener! Though for those of you who don't like cliffhangers, don't worry--this book has a pretty satisfying conclusion while leaving room for more :-)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel José Older is the author of Half-Resurrection Blues (book one of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series from Penguin’s Roc Books) and the upcoming Young Adult novel Shadowshaper (Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015). Publishers Weekly hailed him as a “rising star of the genre” after the publication of his debut ghost noir collection, Salsa Nocturna. He co-edited the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History and guest edited the music issue of Crossed Genres. His short stories and essays have appeared in Tor.com, Salon, BuzzFeed, the New Haven Review, PANK, Apex and Strange Horizons and the anthologies Subversion and Mothership: Tales Of Afrofuturism And Beyond. Daniel’s band Ghost Star gigs regularly around New York and he facilitates workshops on storytelling from an anti-oppressive power analysis. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at ghoststar.net/, on youtube and @djolder on twitter.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Fourth Wall / Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

TITLE: The Fourth Wall
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Maria Naranjo
PUBLISHER: WiDo Publishing
AVAILABILITY: Amazon


GENRE
Young Adult--Contemporary/Paranormal

REVIEW
15-year-old Marin has been lucid dreaming since she was little, when her mother told her that her ability to control her dreamscape was a gift. After a tragic accident claims her mother's life, she uses her power over her dreams to create a fantasyland to escape into. In addition, her mother's death has caused her baby brother to regress inexplicably, while her father struggles to care for them both alone.

When she's advised by a counselor to join group therapy at school, Marin is initially skeptical. Meanwhile, the fantasyland in her dream soon turns into a nightmare as monsters invade, trying to keep her from something... something whose consequences could touch the real world.

Elizabeth Maria Naranjo's YA novel THE FOURTH WALL is nothing short of mesmerizing. Every sentence feels like it was spun from fine silk and woven together into a flowing, hypnotic tapestry. There's a rhythm and a poetry to the writing, which truly sings through gorgeously arranged words.

It's hard to pick a sub-genre within YA for this book because of the dual storylines--the real world Marin lives in and the fantasyland she dreams in. Much of the novel is about how Marin handles the double grief of losing her mother and handling her brother's new developmental challenges. A mature and quiet teen, she struggles to heal herself while trying not to burden anyone else. Her emotions and inner turmoil really come alive on the page, until you're there with her, remembering her mother and experiencing her sorrow and confusion as much as she is. The heavy burdens she carries have caused her to withdraw, and throughout the book, you watch as bit by bit, she begins coming out of her shell and taking control of her own life again.

The book also intersperses fantastical scenes from Marin's dreams amid her attempts to get through her daily life. These dream sequences parallel her real world struggles, eventually leading to an unexpected and rather devastating twist.

A gorgeously rendered exploration of grief, THE FOURTH WALL comes to life and pulls you into Marin's journey. Everything about it is well crafted--the narrative, the dialogue, the characters, the plot. I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer poetic quality of this book, and I highly recommend it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Maria Naranjo grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, before escaping the cold winters and settling in the Sonoran Desert. She lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband and two children.

Elizabeth also writes short fiction and creative nonfiction. Her work has been published in SLAB Literary Magazine, The Portland Review, Hospital Drive, Literary Mama, Babble, Brain, Child, and Bartleby Snopes. She likes dark chocolate and strong coffee, and she loves hearing from readers. Visit her online at elizabethmarianaranjo.com.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Fourth World (The Iamos Trilogy, #1) / Lyssa Chiavari

TITLE: Fourth World (The Iamos Trilogy, #1)
AUTHOR: Lyssa Chiavari
PUBLISHER: Self-published
AVAILABILITY: Amazon



GENRE
Young Adult--Science Fiction

REVIEW
Lyssa Chiavari's vividly imagined YA sci-fi novel, FOURTH WORLD, opens on Nadin, a teen whose dying planet's days are numbered. With the air now toxic, her people are forced to live inside domed cities and must wear protective gear if they venture beyond the domes' protections. Which is why she's so shocked when a strange boy turns up outside with no life support and no identity.

Cut to how this boy got there. Isaak Contreras' family came from Earth as part of late 21st-century colonization effort, but he's a native-born Martian. Tierra Nueva, the Mars colony he lives in, was originally settled by low-income immigrants from Earth after corporations outsourced their operations there in an effort to stop polluting Earth's atmosphere. Gifted in linguistics, he just wants to get through his senior year and accept his inevitable future as a translator for Tierra Nueva's vastly diverse population. But when he stumbles upon a strange rock formation at the site of a geological dig--one that seems to hint at ancient human life on Mars--everything changes.

Isaak's search for answers puts him on the government's radar and makes him the target of a mysterious stalker. Surrounded by strange circumstances that feel like sci-fi even to him, he soon finds himself running--right into Nadin.

Holy cow, this is a good book! The world-building of both the Martian colony and Nadin's world, Iamos, is nothing short of spectacular. There's just enough science to make it feel like it could actually happen, yet isn't afraid to run away with its fanciful imaginings--not unlike old-school incarnations of Mars in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles and, well, John Carter of Mars. There's also a bit of social commentary woven into the fabric of these sci-fi societies--about diverse immigrant populations under the thumb of money-grubbing corporations, about the dangers of eugenics and choosing control over freedom, about colonialism and those who would do anything to stay in power, even it means destroying the fabric of their world. 

Isaak and Nadin both have distinct and engrossing character voices. Isaak is reminiscent of a contemporary teen, with his sarcastic quips and irreverent attitude. Yet he's also growing up in many ways, taking responsibility for his future and choices. Nadin, meanwhile, has been raised by her authoritarian government to be rational and practical, and therefore mature beyond her years. Yet she never quite became the perfect, emotionless automaton they intended her to be, and while Isaak struggles to control his inner turmoil, she struggles to express hers. Suffice it to say, both are complex and interesting characters.

Full of mysteries, intrigue, and fantastical new discoveries, FOURTH WORLD is the kind of book that's hard to put down. I was actually happy when my afternoon commuter train got stuck on the tracks for a good half hour because it meant I got to keep reading (everyone else was grumbling, but I was like, "Nah, I'm good. I've got a book!"). Every time I thought I knew what was going on, the plot threw another wrench into my conclusions--yet did so in a way that made so much sense, I wondered how I hadn't figured it out myself.

Also, can I just say, how great it is to see teens of color IN SPACE? (Well, on other planets--there's no actual space travel depicted, but you get the idea!) Plus, I think this is also the first YA sci-fi book I've read that specifically addresses a character's demisexual orientation.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book--everything about it. The characters, the plot, the friendships, the mysteries, the worlds (two of them! two sci-fi cities! two greedy dystopian governments! two futuristic societies!)... everything about it is just fantastic. I was quite bummed when I reached the end (which is a cliffhanger, opening up lots of questions for the sequel), and I'll certainly be back for more!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lyssa Chiavari is an author of speculative fiction for young adults, including FOURTH WORLD, the first book in a YA sci-fi adventure trilogy set on Mars. She has also written several pieces of short fiction, and is the editor of PERCHANCE TO DREAM, a young adult collection of Shakespeare retellings. Lyssa lives with her family and way too many animals in the woods of Northwest Oregon, which suits her just fine; except it actually doesn't rain there as much as you've been told, and she really could do with more rain, thanks.

Friday, July 8, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Daybreak Rising / Kiran Oliver

TITLE: Daybreak Rising (Daybreak Rising, #1)
AUTHOR: Kiran Oliver
PUBLISHER: Torquere Press
AVAILABILITY: Coming September 2016! Add it on Goodreads



GENRE
Science Fantasy

REVIEW
Celosia Brennan was supposed to save the world. A dual-touched Elementalist with the ability to cast fire and see glimpses of her own future, she was supposed to take down the Council--an authoritarian government that oppresses Elementalists and treats their very existence as a crime--and free her people. But things went horribly, horribly wrong. Now, years later, she has a shot at a second chance. As a member of the Regime, an underground resistance movement, she trains and leads a group of eclectic Elementalists with powers ranging from ice-casting to speaking with the dead in an effort to overthrow the corrupt government once and for all.

But the past is hard to shake. With the Council's constant threat looming and in-fighting straining the team, the Elementalists find themselves up against overwhelming odds as they fight to restore freedom.

Pause for disclosure: I received a free e-ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. Also, the version I read was a pre-edited draft, so I'm not commenting on grammar or anything because at this point, it's beside the point.

Anyway, Kiran Oliver's fantastic superhero-esque novel occupies that weird territory between sci-fi and fantasy. If I had to pick one, I'd say fantasy just because magic is the driving force behind the Elementalists and what they do--plus, the book seems to take place on an alternate world. But there's also advanced technology, futuristic cities, and a dystopian government--staples of sci-fi. It definitely FELT like a superhero story... in fact, the combination of an government that sees innate gifts as criminal with an eclectic team of power-wielders reminded me of X-Men :-).

The book starts by introducing us to the members of the Ember Operative team one by one, starting with Celosia (of course). Let me start by saying that Celosia is one kick-ass character. Though she's haunted by her failure years ago and struggles with mental illness (PTSD and panic attacks), she takes crap from exactly no one. She's tough-as-nails when challenged, yet can be vulnerable and sensitive as well--in other words, she's a well-rounded character. Another favorite of mine is Ianthe, an ice-wielding Elementalist (kind of like a girl Frozone from the Incredibles movie) and Celosia's love interest. Yup, this is a queer book! (and #ownvoices as well!)

The Ember Operative team features the kinds of characters not often (if ever) seen in sci-fi/fantasy--queer characters, trans characters, non-binary characters, a blind character (and no, she doesn't use magic to "see"), characters of color (Ianthe was described by another reviewer as "badass brown Elsa"--which is totally accurate!). Oliver weaves in social commentary on a number of issues, from inequality to mental illness and more, and yet it's done in a way that makes it integral to the story and world-building. This is a book that explores issues, but isn't an "issues book." I especially found it interesting how the trans characters felt compelled to join the Council, which offers "plea bargains" to Elementalists who do their bidding in exchange for the right to live relatively normal lives, because this was the only way they could access the medical care to transition. As those who follow the news may be aware, the U.S. military recently announced that trans people could serve openly and would even cover the costs of transition... Not to say that the real-world military is anything like the dystopian Council, but the parallel was striking.

Anyway, DAYBREAK RISING is at its heart a fun and action-packed superhero story about a team of gifted individuals coming together and facing overwhelming challenges. Things really heat up in the book's third act, with danger and fights and more than one crazy twist. With memorable characters, edge-of-your-seat plot turns, and cool superpowers, this book was exactly my cup of tea.

Of course, it being the first in a series, it ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, but wrapped up the "Book One" stuff in a way that felt satisfying, even if it's going to be a bit of a wait before I get to read the sequel. If you're a fan of X-Men or enjoy action-packed science fantasy in general, then I highly recommend that you check this book out.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kiran "CK" Oliver is a 2016 Southern New Hampshire University graduate currently majoring in Communications with a focus in Public Relations. He also attends Free Code Camp in the hope of earning a certificate in Full Stack Web Development. 

Kiran currently works as a freelance technology journalist, inspired by a past life as a Community Outreach intern at Learning Games Network. As a transgender person in tech, he strives to bring diversity issues to the table whenever possible.

When not daydreaming about lesbian pirates, queer lady paladins, or dragons, Kiran can be found at the gym or playing MMOs. He resides in New Zealand with his wife and their cat, Ember.