Tag Archives: arc review

ARC: The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow

Thank you to NetGalley and Inkyard Press for sending me a free advanced reader copy of this book for an honest review. The Sound of Stars debuted February 25th.

Apologies in advance that this review borders on a rant, but I feel a compulsion to fully express myself. Could be I get some anger for this post–I guess that’s just the risk you run sometimes.

If there’s one thing that can be said about The Sound of Stars, it’s that it doesn’t try to hide what it is. I was pretty excited to read this book–I mean, hello, I’m writing an alien romance, and this book is an alien romance–but from the very first paragraph I could predict this book would be a struggle due to its strong ideological bent.

The invasion came when we were too distracted raging against our governments to notice. Terror had a face and we elected it, my mom said. We were more divided than ever, and that division made our defeat easy.

Listen, I’m not saying that politics doesn’t have a place in books–if politics fit the plot, by all means have at it. However, this book (which is a YA alien romance, remember) is so steeped in progressive and leftist ideology that it’s not far off from propagandistic. In fact, as I read some passages aloud to my husband, he even asked me if it might be parody. (It’s not.) To give one example, Janelle, the MC, suffers from anxiety and frequently employs a counting technique to calm herself.

Five, Tamir Rice, Heather Heyer, Emmett Till, Oscar Grant, Nia Wilson. Four, little church girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. Three, Tree of Life. Christchurch. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Two, people out shopping, Maurice Stallard and Vicki Lee Jones. One, so many–too many–black transgender women to name.

Nobody is going to convince me that the above is good writing. Am I really supposed to believe that all that is going through her head while she’s warding off a panic attack? It’s like some bizarre leftist take on Arya Stark’s kill list.

Let’s go more in depth about the main character as well. Janelle is black, bisexual, “demi-ace,” overweight, with a thyroid problem, and diagnosed depression and anxiety. All of that is okay, of course.

Can you hear the “but” coming? I have a real issue with the current push for “representation” in books, because it has ruined many, many characters for me. Often it feels like authors, especially in the YA world, throw statuses and traits onto their characters like stickers, as if to tick off items on a checklist. I want to have all types of characters in books, but I want those characters to appear organically, rather than just so the author can triumphantly proclaim, Oprah-like, “Ah-ha, here is a person of color, and here is the LGBT character, and here is the character with a medical diagnosis!” So with an MC like Janelle, I found myself reading her characterization as basically a marketing strategy rather than anything that enhanced the book. Is that way of thinking fair to all the characters out there who are LGBT, suffering from various diagnoses, etc? No, but that is the sad place where the “representation” push has led me, and I’m willing to bet a lot of money that others feel the same. The whole thing is a catch-22.

So when it came to understanding Janelle, she felt incredibly surface-level, as if she had been designed by Tumblr committee, or perhaps Vice’s dildo-firing squad.

And setting character aside, the plot and the world-building weren’t gripping enough to get me to forgive all the politics. It’s a pretty standard aliens-taking-over-the-world story, and the tech wasn’t cohesive; it came across to me as magical hocus-pocus instead of futuristic technology that sorta-kinda made sense.

There is a cringiness to this book, too, that would not let up. The MC loves reading, especially YA, and there was all sorts of name-dropping that crossed the line from referential into self-congratulation. It gave me a strong “breaking the fourth wall” type of feeling.

I wonder if that’s how Wylan felt when he finally kissed Jesper, or Dimple and Rishi’s first–no, second–kiss…

Pair all that with many new world-building concepts being thrown in at the eighty percent mark of the book. Pair it again with a deus ex machina. Then add on unrelenting and awkward progressivism. (The alien love interest cannot tell if a human is a man or a woman, for example, until they identify themselves… Oh, but he can easily suss out that Janelle is a girl in the beginning of the book by her name alone. Hmm…)

Well, this was just a really tough sell.

I constantly found myself wondering while reading what an author of a book this political would say if she knew a conservative woman was reading–a conservative woman who, by the way, has not hesitated in the past to read and praise books with a differing ideological lens. I don’t necessarily write off books just because I don’t see eye-to-eye with the author’s politics. Would the author of The Sound of Stars be disgusted by someone like me, who just wanted to read a new-to-market trad-pub alien romance? Or would she not even suspect readers like me exist at all? Hopefully it would be neither one of those extremes, because both are very disheartening.

I remain a reader desperate for well-written alien books, especially alien romance. I was betrayed by aliens last year, twice, and I feel yet again extremely disappointed. (The Humans was great, to be fair.) I am begging the universe–please let the next alien book I read be good. And if there are any authors reading this post, please try to understand that readers like me exist and don’t hate me for it.

ARC: A Longer Fall by Charlaine Harris

Thank you to NetGalley and Saga Press for sending me a free advanced reader copy of this book for an honest review. A Longer Fall debuted January 14th.

Oh man, I’m falling in love. There’s nothing like a book by my hero, Charlaine Harris, to do all the things–thrill, terrify, and inspire love and hate and everything in between, all with rock-solid prose. The first book in the Gunnie Rose series, An Easy Death, was a very solid four-star read for me, and A Longer Fall takes it to the next level.

If you’re not familiar with the series, it follows sharp-shooter-for-hire Lizbeth Rose on her perilous adventures in an alternative history America that’s been split into multiple countries: Texoma, New America, Dixie, Britannia, the Holy Russian Empire. (I might have missed one in there.) Since this is a book by Charlaine Harris, there’s more than a dash of magic sprinkled over the book (there are real wizards here who work real magic), as well as a good dose of mystery and thriller elements. I’ve long thought that the Western genre is due for a reboot, and this genre-bending series feels like a perfect step in that direction.

I’ll admit that it took me a little bit of time to warm to the main character in An Easy Death, as she is over-the-top practical and straightforward. In this next entry in the series, I really felt the characters got their moment to shine and grow. Yeah, yeah, the plot’s good and all, but it’s on a book’s characters to propel a book from good to great. As the book wrapped up, I was on Goodreads immediately searching out info on the next book. The good news is that it’s coming; bad news is that I can’t find a date listed. Mehhhhh.

Basically, if you are looking for a genre-bender or you’re a Harris fan, you should be reading this series. I loved it, and I’ll be first in line for a copy of the next book.

ARC: Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison

Thank you to NetGalley and MIRA Books for sending me a free advanced reader copy of this book for an honest review. Good Girls Lie debuted December 30th.

Good Girls Lie from start to finish felt like a book in conflict with itself. It’s not being marketed as YA, but many of the main characters are teenagers–though their dialogue speaks otherwise. The book is set at a boarding school, so there are the requisite secret societies, girl-on-girl drama, school murder, et cetera… but somehow it feels throughout the book like nothing is happening. And then the adult main characters (remember, this is supposed to be for an adult audience) fall seriously flat; I cared about a grand total of none of them, even as the author is dragging them through romantic twists and important life decisions.

The dialogue was the real death of me in this book. Much of it was entirely out of character, and nothing sounded like it would come from a teen’s mouth–way too staid and old-fashioned. Here are a couple examples:

  • “Are you well, Camille?”
  • “I’ll bid you goodnight.”
  • “Then your insult was not only ill-advised but inaccurate and illogical.”

It felt like the author had never spoken to a teenager in her life. To make matters more difficult, there weren’t many dialogue tags included, so it often became difficult to follow conversations. I’m a fan of keeping dialogue tags on the sparser side myself, but I still recognize that you need to include enough of them so that readers have a sense of who’s talking.

Basically it felt like there was too much crammed into the book, and yet nothing was going on, and even worse, the characters were not nearly fun enough to hold up a book with little plot. I just think that there are so many other books that tackle similar subject matter in a more satisfying fashion. School murder, with people playing the blame game? One of Us Is Lying. Boarding school drama? Maureen Johnson. Young-feeling thriller with a twist at the end? Lock Every Door. Unfortunately I did not get on well with this book, and the writing style makes me wary of picking up another book by this author.

ARC: Safe Harbour by Christina Kilbourne

Thank you to NetGalley and Dundurn for sending me a free advanced reader copy of this book for an honest review. Safe Harbour debuts December 10th.

Safe Harbour is one of a few books I’ve read this year that I’d put in the category of “issue books,” i.e., books that focus on particular real world situations that might not affect all readers, but help give insight and understanding. Myself I wouldn’t normally peg as an issue book kind of reader since I can really bristle at anything that feels too preachy, but Safe Harbour really spoke to me; I was rooting for the MC from page one, especially because she’s in such a perilous situation: a fourteen-year-old on her own in Toronto waiting for her transient father to arrive on his boat. All she has to her name is a tent, a meager stash of cash, a maxed-out credit card, a phone, tuna cans, and soda crackers–oh, and she has a dog that she also has to provide for. And winter is coming, and the MC, who is used to warmer Florida weather, has no idea of the scope of a northern winter.

It’s an unlikely story, but Kilbourne does a great job helping readers see how events could have led to this point. Be prepared for a harrowing story: Safe Harbour illustrates real nice and clear how easily someone can become a victim of sex trafficking, lose a finger to frost bite, or let love (for example, for a pet or a family member struggling with mental illness) keep you from taking steps toward safety. Things worked out okay in the end, but I was praying for the MC along the way.

The characters are the shining feature of this story. For once, I was fully on board the unreliable narrator wagon–I’m not always into unreliable narrators, but I thought it worked splendidly for Safe Harbour. I did think the end wrapped up a bit too neatly and wasn’t that believable, but it didn’t spoil the book in any way. If you’re looking for an issue book that will take you on a roller coaster of emotions and doesn’t get too preachy, Safe Harbour is a good choice.

ARC: Hart & Seoul by Kristen Burnham

Thank you to NetGalley and Mascot Books for sending me a free advanced reader copy of this book for an honest review. Hart & Seoul debuted June 4th.

I’m digging all the Korean- and K-pop-themed YA recently; this is the first of them that I’ve read, but I have a whole slew of them on my TBR. I used to be a big K-pop fan back in middle and high school–ya know, a hundred years ago or thereabouts–so it tickles me pink that everyone’s feeling the Korea love nowadays. 🙂

Anyway, Hart & Seoul is a cute, fast read that is not without its flaws. I enjoyed the MC’s voice, and I especially liked the banter between her and her K-pop star love interest. The details about the K-pop super fans were tons of fun, and I was so craving Korean food by the middle of this book that I had to make a pit stop at Bonchon on the way home from work.

However, I had some difficulties with this book. First off, I initially had a hard time placing Hart & Seoul as a YA book; for some reason I was getting the impression that it was New Adult from the first chapter, then had to walk back the age of the MC in my mind by a couple years. I also found all the plot twists very predictable, most of them by at least fifty pages. Reading was still enjoyable, but I was forever waiting for the very obvious other shoe to drop. I also wasn’t satisfied with the love interest’s explanations for some of his behavior at the end of the book. His words seemed cheap–no spoilers, but I wouldn’t keep dating this guy. Of course, I’m also a thirty-year-old lady, so I’m not exactly smack dab in the middle of this book’s target audience. 😉

I think if you’re into the K-pop scene or interested in Korean culture then you should really consider reading this book. I had fun with it, but that’s fun** with a couple asterisks attached. Now let me wrap up this review quick, before I start craving Korean barbecue again. 😀

ARC: A Midnight Clear by Sam Hooker, Alcy Leyva, Laura Morrison, Cassondra Windwalker, Dalena Storm, and Seven Jane

Thank you to NetGalley and Black Spot Books for sending me a free advanced reader copy of this book for an honest review. A Midnight Clear debuted November 5th.

I’ve made a concerted effort this year to read more short fiction; the vast majority of my weekly Short Tuesday series focuses on dark genre fiction. So I was intrigued by this short story collection from Black Spot Books, which has a dark holiday focus. Like a lot of short story collections, this one was kind of all over the place. I’m going to give each story a mini review, since there’s only six of them.

“The Dauntless” by Sam Hooker was a strong start to the collection. Great prose, fun details, and a gripping premise: the ensuing legal fallout when a ship of Santa’s elves is sent to deliver Christmas joy to one of Lovecraft’s monsters. If you’re a Lovecraft fan, I could see picking up A Midnight Clear just for this story. 4 stars.

“Tidings of the New Moon” by Alcy Leyva was well-written, but didn’t grip me–more a me thing, I think, than anything else. I’m generally a fan of werewolves in fiction, but this story was maybe a bit too on-the-nose for me in terms of some of the details. Nevertheless, Leyva is clearly a talented writer. 3 stars.

“Movin’ On Up” by Laura Morrison was a fun one for me, since I’m letting a Hell-themed project percolate in my mind right now, and that’s what this was: a trio of three inhabitants of Hell trying to persuade a woman destined for Heaven to venture downstairs instead. I wish this story had been given more room for growth, by at least a few thousand more words; it felt rushed. Yet it was tons of fun overall. 4 stars.

“The Poetry of Snow and Stars” by Cassondra Windwalker was a story that I unfortunately did not get along with. It has an adverb-soaked voice and tons of backstory that put me in mind of those romances you read where the author is trying to catch you up on all the previous characters in the series–I’ve never been a fan of that myself, and that sentiment counts doubly for a short story, where no word should be wasted. The maybe-murder-maybe-not plot didn’t catch me, and the Stanley Hotel setting felt wasted. 2 stars.

“Sleep, Sweet Khors” by Dalena Storm is actually the second work I’ve read by this author in 2019; I was introduced to her by her debut novel, The Hungry Ghost. Like Ghost, this story has a strong mythological spine, this time from the Slavic tradition. I didn’t like the mythology infodump in the middle of the story; I always prefer these kinds of details to get threaded through the narrative. As with Ghost, this author feels like she is currently developing her voice; she has some great ideas, and I’m digging the mythology threads she interweaves with her stories, but I’d like to see a bit more lyricism to her prose. 3 stars.

“Snow Angel” by Seven Jane was a weaker end to the collection, sadly. The prose felt overworked, and much of the narrative was spent in the main character’s head, which got tiresome for me as a reader because the MC was just bemoaning the holiday season the entire time–I didn’t want to spend any more time with her than need be! When we got to the big magical climax, I had a difficult time believing that all this was happening to the main character; was she really special enough to have all this magical attention lavished upon her? So this story and I sadly didn’t mesh. 2 stars.

In sum, this collection was a bit of a bumpy ride, but there were some fun, bright moments. If you’re looking for some Christmas-themed stories and you like your fiction with a dose of darkness, consider giving this a go.

ARC: Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden

Thank you to NetGalley and Harper Voyager for sending me a free advanced reader copy of this book for an honest review. Escaping Exodus debuts October 15th.

The seemingly acid trip-inspired cover of Escaping Exodus does the words inside justice: this book is unabashedly weird.

Just look at this cover, omg. I want it on my wall.

Drayden chronicles a matriarchal society that has made the innards of a gargantuan, living space beast their home; when one space beast is on the way out health-wise, they literally jump ship (har har) to the next one in the herd. It’s mad, it’s trippy, it’s body horror at times, and it’s the kind of book you really need to experience for yourself.

I inch closer to the pond of cool, debris-ridden slime that rims the sphincter. It pulses, back and forth, back and forth, a putrid-looking pucker of flesh. Adalla sticks both of her hands in the hole and pulls hard, her muscles rippling and bulging. The rim tries to hold tight, even looks like it’s tugging against her, but eventually it gives, and the hole widens just enough for a person to slip through.

And is the book YA? The main characters are certainly the proper age, but I’d say not really; it doesn’t have the tone you’d expect, which I chalk up to the MCs living in such an alien society and feeling so young and brash that they’re completely unrelatable. There were times I had a really hard time buying the decisions of the MCs; for people living in a society that faces the constant threat of extinction, they have no issues throwing caution to the wind at every opportunity.

The pacing of the book was also strange, to say the least. From start to finish action is stuffed together in a kind of madcap jumble, but then threads of story seem to wither away into nothingness, never to be picked up again. I think the blurb for the book is kind of telling: one big infodump followed by the most blah of final hooks:

And of course there wouldn’t be much of a story if things didn’t go terribly, terribly wrong.

Notice how unspecific that is? There’s too much going on in this book to condense the plot into “If X character doesn’t do Y near-impossible thing, then Z terrible consequence will happen!” We’ve got a lesbian princess and subject forbidden love affair, an underclass uprising, people communicating in code by making out, sex with baby space beasts, an obtuse matriarchal and polyamorous family system with like eight moms and a couple dads per child, court intrigue, clone rights, inter-space beast communications, forgotten histories… I could continue if needed. As per usual, the social justice themes were a turn-off for me, but even that kind of got drowned out by all the crazy, constant details. And yet, for a book with so much detailed worldbuilding, I somehow found it hard to picture exactly what was going on in a lot of scenes, I think because the whole book takes an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach.

Basically, Escaping Exodus felt far too ambitious; I would have liked to see more nuance. Nevertheless, many scenes were absolutely riveting, and some bits have really stuck with me. (I read this book back in July.) It’s obvious that this author has tons of potential, so I’m definitely up for reading more of her work.