Great reads for International Women’s Day

This year, International Women’s Day (IWD) is on Tuesday, March 8. IWD is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.

The theme for the 2022 edition of IWD is #BreakTheBias. There are, of course, several ways to highlight this. But as a bookworm, I want to talk about feminist books that in one way or another, imbue this theme of breaking through societal norms in their storytelling.

I like to think of the term ‘feminist’ as a fluid one, one that evolves to fit the progress we’ve made as a society, and adapts to help overcome new injustices. For example, a ‘feminist’ in the past would have been someone who supported the woman’s vote. A feminist now could be someone fighting for equal pay, and for both maternity and paternity leave.

There are hundreds of ways to advocate for gender parity. The stories below all feature characters fighting the crushing weight of the patriarchy in their own way, whether its by trying to learn how to infiltrate and navigate the ruling class, or burning it to the ground.

Iron Widow, Xiran Jay Zhao

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

The Gilded Ones, Namina Forna

Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.

But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.

Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.

Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she’s ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be–not even Deka herself.

The Grace Year, Kim Liggett

No one speaks of the grace year. It’s forbidden.

In Garner County, girls are told they have the power to lure grown men from their beds, to drive women mad with jealousy. They believe their very skin emits a powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth, of a girl on the edge of womanhood. That’s why they’re banished for their sixteenth year, to release their magic into the wild so they can return purified and ready for marriage. But not all of them will make it home alive.

Sixteen-year-old Tierney James dreams of a better life—a society that doesn’t pit friend against friend or woman against woman, but as her own grace year draws near, she quickly realizes that it’s not just the brutal elements they must fear. It’s not even the poachers in the woods, men who are waiting for a chance to grab one of the girls in order to make a fortune on the black market. Their greatest threat may very well be each other.

With sharp prose and gritty realism, The Grace Year examines the complex and sometimes twisted relationships between girls, the women they eventually become, and the difficult decisions they make in-between.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, Kiersten White

Elizabeth Lavenza hasn’t had a proper meal in weeks. Her thin arms are covered with bruises from her “caregiver,” and she is on the verge of being thrown into the streets . . . until she is brought to the home of Victor Frankenstein, an unsmiling, solitary boy who has everything–except a friend.

Victor is her escape from misery. Elizabeth does everything she can to make herself indispensable–and it works. She is taken in by the Frankenstein family and rewarded with a warm bed, delicious food, and dresses of the finest silk. Soon she and Victor are inseparable.

But her new life comes at a price. As the years pass, Elizabeth’s survival depends on managing Victor’s dangerous temper and entertaining his every whim, no matter how depraved. Behind her blue eyes and sweet smile lies the calculating heart of a girl determined to stay alive no matter the cost . . . as the world she knows is consumed by darkness.

A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes

From the Trojan women whose fates now lie in the hands of the Greeks, to the Amazon princess who fought Achilles on their behalf, to Penelope awaiting the return of Odysseus, to the three goddesses whose feud started it all, these are the stories of the women whose lives, loves, and rivalries were forever altered by this long and tragic war.

A woman’s epic, powerfully imbued with new life, A Thousand Ships puts the women, girls and goddesses at the center of the Western world’s great tale ever told.

100 Bookstagram Post Prompts To Engage Your Followers

100 Bookstagram Post Prompts To Engage Your Followers

Bookish people tend to find other likeminded bookish people. There are a few places on the internet where whole communities of story-loving booknerds can be found, one of which is Instagram. Instagram is one of the most popular image-sharing social media platforms in the world, with an estimated 1 billion active users monthly worldwide. The bookish community there is affectionately referred to as Bookstagram (cute, right?).

If you have a Bookstagram account, then you’ve probably wondered how to grow your following and reach other bookish users.

Personally, I use Bookstagram to connect with potential readers for the Young Adult High Fantasy novel, The Sapeiro Chronicles: A Forgotten Past. But I also use it to meet other authors in my genre, and have had the incredible opportunity to chat with readers and writers world-wide.

I’m not going to lie and try to pretend to understand the intricacies of how the platform’s analytics work to push content to those who are likely to enjoy it. However, one thing is certain: Instagram–and by extension, most social media platforms, value and reward engagement. The more people who engage with your content, either through liking or commenting on your posts, the more likely that your content will continue to be pushed and promoted, furthering your reach.

As content creators, it’s incredibly important to maintain an active presence on social media. However, this can be daunting and time consuming. Not to mention that sometimes, your creativity well runs dry.

What I’ve found to be helpful in driving engagement is to ask people an interesting question of the day (QOTD) to try and get your followers to interact with your post.

So here’s a list of topics/questions to ask your followers and maintain engagement!

Let’s start with the basics:

  1. What’s your favorite book?
  2. Who is your favorite author?
  3. What’s your favorite genre?
  4. What’s your favorite series?
  5. What’s your favorite standalone?
  6. What’s your favorite duology?
  7. What’s your favorite trilogy?
  8. What’s the last book you added to your TBR?
  9. What’s the last book your judged by its cover?
  10. What’s your most anticipated book for 2022?
  11. What are you currently reading?
  12. What was your last five-star read?
  13. Do you ever re-read books?
  14. Without including spoilers, what book had the biggest twist you never saw coming?
  15. Do you prefer hardcovers or paperbacks?
  16. What book made you fall in love with reading?
  17. What’s the last book you DNF?
  18. Do you multitask while reading?
  19. How do you organize your bookshelf?
  20. Do you have a reading buddy?
  21. Describe your favorite book badly!

Get to know your audience:

  1. What’s a book you wish you could read for the first time again?
  2. What’s a book you couldn’t put down?
  3. What’s the last book that made you cry?
  4. What’s your favorite book trope?
  5. What’s your favorite classic story?
  6. What’s your favorite myth?
  7. What’s your favorite retelling?
  8. Would you buy a book you already owned because it had a cover you preferred?
  9. What’s the prettiest book you own?
  10. What book have you read the most?
  11. If you could read only one genre for the rest of your life, what would it be?
  12. What’s the quickest it’s taken you to read a book?
  13. How many books do you pack when going on vacation?
  14. What book did Bookstagram make you buy?
  15. What is a book that didn’t live up to the hype?
  16. What’s your favorite spin-off?
  17. Best translated books you’ve ever read?
  18. What book broke you?
  19. What book gave you secondhand cringe?
  20. Do you read indie books?
  21. Which book did you wish had a sequel?
  22. What sequel do you think was better than the original?
  23. Do you keep the dust jacket on when you read?
  24. Which series do you think is going to be the next mainstream series?
  25. What’s an underrated book that you think everyone should read?
  26. What’s a popular book that doesn’t deserve the hype?
  27. What’s your Hogwarts house?
  28. You inherit a character’s power! What is it?
  29. What’s a book that you’re scared to read?
  30. Have you ever reviewed a book before?
  31. Has a book ever made you mad before?
  32. What’s the longest series you’ve read?
  33. What’s the longest book you’re read?
  34. What do you think makes a good story?
  35. What’s a book pet peeve that you have?
  36. What book did you find underwhelming?

This or that questions:

  1. Do you prefer drinking tea or coffee?
  2. Do you listen to music when you read?
  3. Do you prefer reading inside, or outside?
  4. Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
  5. Do you prefer standalones or series?
  6. Do you prefer first-person POV or third-person?
  7. Do you prefer clean romance or some spice?
  8. Which trope do you prefer: Enemies to lovers or slow burn?
  9. Simple covers, or elaborate ones?
  10. Do you prefer reading in the morning, or at night?
  11. Pirates or sirens?
  12. Assassins or warriors?
  13. Would you rather read from the hero’s POV, or the villain’s?
  14. Physical books or eBooks?
  15. Disney or Pixar?
  16. Fiction or non-fiction?
  17. If you could pick a companion animal, what would it be?

Character-related questions

  1. Who is your favorite book couple?
  2. Who is your favorite book girlfriend/boyfriend?
  3. Who is your least favorite villain?
  4. Who is your favorite villain?
  5. What’s your favorite monster?
  6. If you could become part of any fictional world, which one would it be?

General questions:

  1. What’s your favorite season?
  2. What could you talk about for an hour without any hesitation or preparation?
  3. What are you most grateful for?
  4. What’s a quote that you live by?
  5. What are your reading goals?
  6. What are your weekend plans?
  7. Do you read multiple books at once?
  8. How do you keep track of your reading?
  9. Do you annotate books?
  10. What’s your favorite snack?
  11. What did you want to be when you grew up?
  12. Are you a morning person, or a night owl?
  13. What’s your creative outlet?
  14. If you could study anything in the world, what would it be?
  15. Where do you go for book recommendations?
  16. Do you have a book blog?
  17. How many languages can you read in?
  18. Are you subscribed to any bookish boxes?
  19. What’s the most underwhelming talent you have?
  20. What’s an underrated book you wished got more attention?

Time-related questions

  1. How many books do you buy a month?
  2. Monthly round-up! How many books did you read this month?
  3. What’s your reading goal for this month?
  4. What’s your reading goal this year?

Here are a few examples of engaging posts I’ve made on my Instagram page:

A look back on 2021’s best books

How many books did you read this year?

My personal goal was 25. It had been a long, long time since I’d read that many books in a whole year, mainly because I just didn’t have that many available and didn’t quite know where to start. That changed recently. For one, book-buying has become one of my pandemic hobbies and comfort purchases. And secondly, I recently moved and acquired beautiful bookshelves that needed to be filled. Two birds, one stone, right?

All that to say, this year I nearly doubled my goal and read a whopping 46 books. I don’t think I’ve ever read this many in a single year! So let me tell you: when it came to picking the top six, it was both very hard and very easy. Some stellar reads stood out from the first page, while for others, it was a tossup.

Without further ado, here is the list of the top books I read in 2021:

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Set in the days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.

Without a doubt, this book was beautiful to read. The prose and wordsmithing were like nothing I’d ever seen before. This is not your typical ‘fighting for survival after a catastrophic worldwide collapse’ story. It is hopeful, it is optimistic in its own way. Reading it during a global pandemic was cathartic, but Station Eleven was a beautiful reminder that life goes on, and that even in the darkest days there is always an ‘after’. 

Read the review on Instagram.

Iron Widow, Xiran Jay Zhao

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s tale in this futuristic story, set in a world inspired by Chinese cultural elements. Iron Widow is fast-paced, edgy, and unabashedly feminist. Zetian does not mince words, and has no problem with taking down those who she feels have crossed her. As she becomes more powerful, and therefore more dangerous to those who wish to maintain the status quo, Zetian will have to decide if she wants to change the world, or burn it down to the ground. I loved this book and had a hard time putting it down. The story was like nothing I’d ever read before, and it reads almost like a villain origin story, which was different from what you usually find in the YA genre. There is nothing soft about this book, it’s full of rough edges and hard truths. I highly recommend!

Check out the full review on Instagram.

Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission—and if he fails, humanity and the Earth itself will perish. Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it. All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species. And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.

This book was an automatic five-star read for me. The story is told in two timelines: the present, where the MC, Ryland Grace is on the Hail Mary, and the past, which come in the form of burst of his memories. These memories also happen to contextualize what is happening in the present, and I found it a brilliant way to show the reader what happened, without telling them outright. The back and forth also did a great job in cranking up the tension, especially as it becomes clear that Earth’s position is even more dire than initially thought.

And, without giving any spoilers…the ending of the book was one of the most beautiful I’ve read in a long time. I teared up reading those last few pages, and was completely taken by surprise. This is for sure going to become a classic in the sci-fi genre!

Kingdom of Ash, Sarah J. Mass

Aelin Galathynius has vowed to save her people ― but at a tremendous cost. Locked within an iron coffin by the Queen of the Fae, Aelin must draw upon her fiery will as she endures months of torture. The knowledge that yielding to Maeve will doom those she loves keeps her from breaking, but her resolve is unraveling with each passing day…

With Aelin captured, friends and allies are scattered to different fates. Some bonds will grow even deeper, while others will be severed forever. As destinies weave together at last, all must fight if Erilea is to have any hope of salvation.

I finished reading the whole Throne of Glass series for the first time this year, and I finally understood the hype around Aelin and her adventures. The series as a whole was so good, and the finale, Kingdom of Ash, is a fantastic end to the series, where all the different plots converge and come together to form a beautiful tapestry of storytelling. This series has redefined how I think of good storytelling, and the importance of worldbuilding to push the narrative forward.

The Cruel Prince (series), Holly Black

One terrible morning, Jude and her sisters see their parents murdered in front of them. The terrifying assassin abducts all three girls to the world of Faerie, where Jude is installed in the royal court but mocked and tormented by the Faerie royalty for being mortal. As Jude grows older, she realises that she will need to take part in the dangerous deceptions of the fey to ever truly belong. But the stairway to power is fraught with shadows and betrayal. And looming over all is the infuriating, arrogant and charismatic Prince Cardan.

I’m always down for a story that incorporates politics and political intrigue. The Folk of the Air series does exactly that, and it does it very well. I was really impressed with the storytelling, plot, and love story. It felt like one of the most genuine enemies to lovers stories I’ve read, and I really liked how the immortal love interest was an authentic idiot kid, at the beginning of his long immortal lifespan.

There’s so much I enjoyed in this trilogy, from the political intrigue and subterfuge to the MC needing to acquire power in impressive ways to make up for her otherwise lackluster defenses as a human in a world of magic. Overall, it was *chef’s kiss*.

The Grace Year, Kim Liggett

No one speaks of the grace year. It’s forbidden. In Garner County, girls are told they have the power to lure grown men from their beds, to drive women mad with jealousy. They believe their very skin emits a powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth, of a girl on the edge of womanhood. That’s why they’re banished for their sixteenth year, to release their magic into the wild so they can return purified and ready for marriage. But not all of them will make it home alive.

Sixteen-year-old Tierney James dreams of a better life—a society that doesn’t pit friend against friend or woman against woman, but as her own grace year draws near, she quickly realizes that it’s not just the brutal elements they must fear. It’s not even the poachers in the woods, men who are waiting for a chance to grab one of the girls in order to make a fortune on the black market. Their greatest threat may very well be each other.

With sharp prose and gritty realism, The Grace Year examines the complex and sometimes twisted relationships between girls, the women they eventually become, and the difficult decisions they make in-between.

This book came in just under the wire to be able to count in my 2021 reading tally. I’d heard a lot about The Grace Year, and so my expectations were pretty high. Yet still, I was floored by how amazing this story was. I was tense reading it the entire time, waiting to see what would happen next. The plot kept me on edge and I was always questioning myself on what was happening, and whether anything was really real. It was SO good and was one of the rare stories that I can call jaw-dropping.

So tell me in the comments: what were some of your top reads in 2021?

BOOK REVIEW: SMALL FAVORS BY ERIN A. CRAIG

Enter not the forest deep. Beyond the bells, the dark fiends keep.

Summer is slowly winding down. The changing of the seasons brings with it the chill of autumn, ripe with spooky tales and creepy crawlies. Who doesn’t like a twisted tale that makes you glance over your shoulder?

Small Favors is the perfect book to read during the tail-end of summer, when nights are starting to become longer and colder. This is author Erin A. Craig’s second novel. Her first book, House of Salt and Sorrows, was a NYT bestseller and one of my personal favorite reads this year. You can check out that review here.

Here’s the synopsis for Small Favors:

Ellerie Downing lives in the quiet town of Amity Falls in the Blackspire Mountain range–five narrow peaks stretching into the sky like a grasping hand, bordered by a nearly impenetrable forest from which the early townsfolk fought off the devils in the woods. To this day, visitors are few and rare. But when a supply party goes missing, some worry that the monsters that once stalked the region have returned.

As fall turns to winter, more strange activities plague the town. They point to a tribe of devilish and mystical creatures who promise to fulfill the residents’ deepest desires, however grand and impossible, for just a small favor. But their true intentions are much more sinister, and Ellerie finds herself in a race against time before all of Amity Falls, her family, and the boy she loves go up in flames.

Craig draws upon the same elements in Small Favors that made House of Salt and Sorrows such a riveting success: creepy vibes, strangers with dark secrets, and a young girl trying to save her family from destruction.

One of the main themes in the book is the sense of community, of family, and how painful it can be when the bonds that hold us all together begin to fray. It also touches on the chaos that inevitably comes after a community implodes into itself, when people who were once viewed as friends are suddenly regarded upon as strangers, or worse: enemies with a familiar face.

The pace of the storytelling and drama increases gradually throughout the book, the tension mounting and building up until the very last page. There is mystery upon mystery, and the town seems to be the epicenter of it all. The tension in the story slowly becomes more taut as the narrative progresses, until everything becomes so tightly woven that something has to give. Which, of course, it eventually does. The last arc of the book, where everything gets resolved, are complete page-turners. I don’t recommend starting the final few chapters just before bed, unless you don’t have to wake up early the next day!

What I also appreciated about Small Favors is that not all of the characters are redeemable. I genuinely believe this is a strength to Craig’s storytelling. Not everyone can have a happily ever after. And frankly, not everyone deserves to be forgiven for their terrible sins and choices.

Overall, the book has just the right amount of claustrophobia that is reminiscent of stories with spooky vibes and undercurrents of mystery and horror. As things begin to crumble around Ellerie and her family, the feeling of being stuck with nowhere to go becomes stronger.

If you enjoy stories with a single point-of-view, that are slow-burning and heavily lean into unsolved mysteries and family secrets, then I highly recommend this book. Hopefully Craig writes another one soon!

Book Review: The Gilded Ones

What if your blood ran gold?

In The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna, girls who are found to have golden blood are sentenced to death for being impure. Except, as sixteen-year old Deka will find out, there’s more to her golden blood than has been shared with her.

This is Forna’s debut novel. Initially, it was supposed to be published last year, but due to the pandemic the publishing house opted to wait. The Gilded Ones is a good debut novel, but it felt clunky and clumsy at times. I wanted to like this book, I really did. It had some strong aspects to it that I found particularly interesting, but ultimately, there were some aspects that I couldn’t move past.

Here’s a quick synopsis:

Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs. But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.

Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.

Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she’s ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be–not even Deka herself.

THE WORLDBUILDING

One of the strongest aspects of The Gilded Ones was the worldbuilding. Forna built a beautifully diverse world with creatures that are both fantastical and terrifying, with an intricate culture and belief system that guides the character’s actions in their everyday lives.

Forna clearly spent a lot of time delving into the culture and fleshing out what this world would look like. It is rich, and complicated, and interesting, with all the hallmarks of high fantasy writing. However, it happened a few times where things were mentioned and spoken about, only to never be mentioned again. As a reader, this made it difficult to decipher what information was important to the plot, and what was only a passing element that we wouldn’t see again.

The world of The Gilded Ones is an intensely patriarchal society that is unabashedly misogynist. Girls are tested for their purity, and are forced to always be accompanied by a male relative after reaching adult age. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with including this in a story. However, what is odd is that The Gilded Ones is often touted as a feminist work. Although a case can be made as such, seeing as there are quite a few strong female characters, the story reads more as a dystopia akin to the Handmaid’s tale.

CHARACTERS

Whereas the worldbuilding was one of the strong suites of the book, I found that the characters were one of the story’s weaknesses.

The main character, Deka, was very two-dimensional, which is interesting considering the story was entirely told from her perspective. I found Deka’s character arc was not nearly as pronounced as it could have been. For a long time she remained stagnant as the narrative moved forward. It’s really only in the very few last pages that suddenly, her character flourishes in a surprising way that would have been nice to see earlier in the story. Ultimately though, I found it difficult to care for her, and never really got the impression that the reader got to actually know her very well. Her struggles through training were only glanced upon, which is a shame.

The book also bounced around between being so slow and introspective that it didn’t feel like anything was happening, to so fast that it was difficult to understand what was going on.

AIMED FOR THE RIGHT AUDIENCE?

The Gilded Ones was a very brutal and violent book. Although violence isn’t outside of the scope of YA literature, the violence in The Gilded Ones was often of a sexual nature that seems at odds with the YA genre.

Frankly, with a few changes to the quality of the dialogue, and with slightly older protagonists, this would have made a really great New Adult book. And with an older, more mature audience in mind, the dark themes of this work could have been thoroughly explored without the constraints of the YA genre.

Ultimately, I’m so far divided on this book. On the one hand it was refreshing and interesting to read a book with so many cultures and diverse characters. But then again, it also fell into many of the pitfalls that YA is critiqued for, and clumsily at that.

It’s a book worth reading, and I’m not giving up on the series just yet. But I think there are other books who deal with these very serious issues in a better manner.

Book review: Project Hail Mary

With a title like ‘Project Hail Mary’, you figure that whatever stakes there are in the story, they must be high. And for this story in particular, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Our sun is dying. Energy – the literal light is being leeched by an interstellar bacteria dubbed astrophage, feeding off of our star’s light. The sun dims at the same rate as astrophage brightens. No one knows anything about this new threat. How does it feed? How does it breed, and most importantly: where did it come from?

Only one thing is certain: the consequences of the sun’s dimming will be devastating. Global collapse of the world’s agricultural systems. Ecological devastation. War. Civil unrest. Pestilence.

The only way to have a fighting chance at saving Earth is to follow the astrophage back to their home planet, study it, and see what its weakness is. It’s a one-way journey. Here’s the synopsis:

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission–and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish. Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.

Part scientific mystery, part dazzling interstellar journey, Project Hail Mary is a tale of discovery, speculation, and survival to rival The Martian–while taking us to places it never dreamed of going.

THE PROS

One of the (many) successes of this book is that regardless of what is going on in the story, there is a constant sense of dread. Weir is particularly gifted at making it very clear how many ways this mission will likely go sideways, either on Earth or out in space. Every second that Grace takes to determine his surroundings means one more second of potential chaos on Earth. And time is running out quickly.

Project Hail Mary was very difficult to put down, as there was always something new and exciting that made me want to read more. The stakes were unbelievably high (saving the Earth and all human kind? No biggie). And reading about the science was really interesting.

Now, as a non-science person myself, I really appreciated how Weir explained very difficult concepts (well, difficult to me at least) in a really approachable way. Weir is a devout space nerd and hobbyist, and it shows in the quality of the writing that he indeed did a lot of research to make this book seems as fluid as it is. It made the story that much more realistic, and even if I didn’t grasp every scientific concept brushed upon in the book, I understood enough to follow along with the story and see the impact.

This book was an automatic five-star read for me. The story is told in two timelines: the present, where Grace is on the Hail Mary, and the past, which come in the form of burst of his memories. These memories also happen to contextualize what is happening in the present, and I found it a brilliant way to show the reader what happened, without telling them outright. The back and forth also did a great job in cranking up the tension, especially as it becomes clear that Earth’s position is even more dire than initially thought.

And, without giving any spoilers…the ending of the book was one of the most beautiful I’ve read in a long time. I teared up a bit reading those last few pages, and was completely taken by surprise.

THE CONS

Now, ‘cons’ is a strong word for me being really nitpicky about a few things in an otherwise fantastic book. But every work has parts that aren’t as strong as the whole.

Ryland Grace is a multi-dimensional character, and the flashbacks peel away aspects of his personality in a really elegant and thoughtfully executed way. One of Weir’s strengths as a writer is creating main characters that are easy to relate to.

Now, on to the ‘but’: For all of Ryland Grace’s personality traits, he reads very much like Mark Watney, the main character of Weir’s debut science fiction novel The Martian. They share near identical types of humour and react very similarly to different situations. Personally, I didn’t care much, since I enjoyed reading The Martian and liked the humor injected into the story. But I do concede that it might annoy readers.

Another nitpicky thing with some of the tertiary characters from Earth in the story is that they sometimes come across as a little one-dimensional according to their nationality. For example, Russians enjoying vodka, or Canadians being unabashedly positive. These are characters who do not appear for very long, and for whom it wouldn’t make sense to delve into their backstories for longer than necessary. But, it’s something important to mention.

If you enjoy science fiction stories, dystopias, or epic adventures, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Project Hail Mary ASAP. You won’t regret it!

Book review: House of Salt and Sorrows

Oh, I liked this book.

House of Salt and Sorrows (HoSS) is a Young Adult fantasy novel written by Erin A. Craig. It is a dark and twisted fairy tale retelling, with elements of mystery and horror woven through that keep you wondering what’s really going on the whole time.

Annaleigh lives a sheltered life at Highmoor, a manor by the sea, with her sisters, their father, and stepmother. Once they were twelve, but loneliness fills the grand halls now that four of the girls’ lives have been cut short. Each death was more tragic than the last—the plague, a plummeting fall, a drowning, a slippery plunge—and there are whispers throughout the surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods.

Disturbed by a series of ghostly visions, Annaleigh becomes increasingly suspicious that the deaths were no accidents. Her sisters have been sneaking out every night to attend glittering balls, dancing until dawn in silk gowns and shimmering slippers, and Annaleigh isn’t sure whether to try to stop them or to join their forbidden trysts. Because who—or what—are they really dancing with?

When Annaleigh’s involvement with a mysterious stranger who has secrets of his own intensifies, it’s a race to unravel the darkness that has fallen over her family—before it claims her next.

HoSS is one of the best standalone YA Fantasy books I’ve read, and is one of my top picks so far for this year. Unsurprisingly, I was first drawn to the book because of the title and the beautiful cover. The blurb also had me hooked – it seemed full of mystery and intrigue, and I immediately wanted to know more.

I had high expectations for this story for a few reasons, mainly because of the amount of positive reviews on Goodreads, but also because I’d heard so much about it from other fans in the genre. I’m very happy to say I was not disappointed. HoSS is a beautiful read that incorporates elements of magic effortlessly. These elements become so infused with the story as your progress that it’s easy to miss when this book goes from a creepy thriller to a full-on low fantasy novel, with mischievous forces hovering nearby, wreaking havoc.

Even if the novel is aimed at a YA audience, it deals with very real and very raw issues, such as the loss of a sibling (or rather, several siblings), the death of a parent, and what to do when the remaining parent remarries.

Craig masterfully created tension, friction and emotion through the character of Morella, new wife of Orton Thaumas and now stepmother to his collection of daughters. Morella instantly ignites frustration within the reader, after co-opting the funeral of one of Annaleigh’s recently deceased sisters to announce the happy news that she is pregnant with Orton’s child. She then continues to spark ire when she assumes that her son – as she is positive she is pregnant with a boy – will inherit the Thaumas fortune and estate.

Morella becomes an early target of dislike, however, as tragedy strikes the Thaumas household over and over again, it becomes apparent that there is more to this tale than just an evil stepmother. Soon, Annaleigh finds herself at the center of a high-stakes game played by mischievous divinities, where the veil between what is real and what is imagined wears thinner and thinner.

And as Annaleighs comes closer to solving the mystery of what evil is beseeching her family, her grip on reality also begins to loosen, leaving the reader confused as to what is actually happening. This is emphasized by the fact that Annaleigh is the only character through which we see the story – meaning her perceived reality, be it true or false, is the only one we are subjected to.

As mentioned, HoSS is a wonderfully crafted story with a plot that will keep you on the edge of your seat. One note, however, is that is can sometimes be confusing to remember which sister is which, and distinguish between their personalities. But even with this confusion, it isn’t terribly difficult to keep the characters separate from one another.

What would you do if you lost your imagination?

Have you pre-ordered your copy of The Imagination Machine yet? The Imagination Machine is a tale of friendship, adventure, and creativity. 

Sam thinks he has lost his imagination. When his friend Ophelia finds out, she offers to help him find it using the Imagination Machine! The machine has the power to bring you anywhere you can imagine. All you need to do is draw where you want to go.

I had so much fun putting this story together. As a young girl, I often worked on elaborate drawings and thinking up stories that went along with them. That creative streak is still with me today, and fuels my writing.

You can now pre-order your digital or hardcover copy of The Imagination Machine via kickstarter

By backing us, not only will you help in bringing this project to life, but you’ll also have the opportunity to get your copy of The Imagination Machine before anyone else. And to sweeten the deal, you’ll also have access to exclusive goodies like activity pages, a coloring book, and stickers!

Review: A Lair of Bones by Helen Scheuerer

How far would you go to follow your ambitions, regardless of how grand?

That’s the question that Roh, a cyren in Saddoriel, must ask herself after hearing that there will be another Queen’s Tournament, the first in 50 years. The tournaments are deadly, ruthless. But the winner – should anyone survive – will be crowned the next ruler.

A Lair of Bones (YA fantasy) by Helen Scheuerer is the first story in the upcoming Curse of the Cyren Queen Quartet. I had the absolute pleasure of reading an ARC in exchange for an honest review of the story. Here’s the synopsis:

A deadly contest. A vaulting ambition. How far will one cyren go to win?

Mighty cyrens have ruled the ancient lair of Saddoriel for centuries. A cavernous fortress, a subterranean labyrinth of tunnels and levels, powered by magic and music…

From the moment she was born, Roh, the daughter of an infamous criminal, has been despised by her own kind. Restricted to the Lower Sector and forced to work as a common bone cleaner, she has always believed she belongs above: where lies adventure… and power.

Opportunity arises in the form of the Queen’s Tournament, a treacherous set of trials that could see the victor crowned ruler of the entire lair. Up against the most cunning, dangerous cyrens in all the realms, does Roh stand a chance?

THE REVIEW

I absolutely loved this story, and had a hard time putting it down. It is dark, delicious, and filled with intricate culture and lore. One of the aspects that I enjoyed the most was that sirens (referred to as cyrens in the book) were the focus of the story. The beginning of the book was a tad slow, as there was a lot of information that needed to be conveyed to readers on the hierarchy, culture and society of the cyren characters portrayed. But the story quickly picked up, and as soon as the action ramped up, I raced through the rest.

These creatures, portrayed in Greek mythology as being half human and half bird, would lure sailors to their deaths through their song. The cyrens in A Lair of Bones are equally as ruthless, except that instead of being half bird they have more aquatic traits, such as the ability to breathe underwater and scales that appear on their skin. I’d never read a story featuring cyrens as the main characters before, and so it was very interesting to have them be the focus of the story.

Roh and her cyren folk are cunning and ambitious, with a deep appreciation for music and melody. They also have a healthy distaste of humans. Their lust for music and song often send members of Talon’s Reach up to the surface, to kidnap humans that display particularly gifted musical ability so they can play for them.

A Lair of Bones focuses on Roh and her ambition to win in the Queen’s Tournament. Roh wants nothing more than to don the coral crown and lead her people. She is the lowest of the low – the daughter of one of the worst criminals in history. Roh hopes that winning the crown will bring her the respect and appreciation she wants so badly. But to win the crown, Roh will need to be more cunning, ruthless, and brutal than all of the other competitors, who want the crown just as much as she does. The trials are designed to test participants in the most brutal ways possible, both physically and mentally. And for this edition, the designers of the trial have thrown in an extra twist by giving each cyren a human to take care of. Should the human die or become injured, then that means expulsion for the cyren.

At first, Roh is loath to take care of Odi, her designated human. She, as all cyrens, views humans as weak. Inferior. Easily dupped by the magic that surrounds the Lair. She grudgingly protects Odi from the wrath of other contestants. But with time, Roh comes to appreciate Odi’s presence – and his surprising insight.

One of the aspects that I appreciated the most about A Lair of Bones was the intricate culture and world that author Helen Scheuerer created. The cyrens have an intricate class system, a rich and vibrant culture, and an appreciation for music that runs so deep that it heavily impacts how cyrens live their lives and form their societies.

I highly recommend this story to readers who enjoy stories with fantastical creatures, dark storylines, and strong female characters. Roh is a well-rounded protagonist who is cunning, ambitious, and willing to do anything to achieve her goal. But she is also empathetic and kind, even though she doesn’t necessarily want to be.

A Lair of Bones will be available on Amazon as of July 20. You won’t want to miss the epic Dark Fantasy story!

Review: Throne of Glass series

There’s no rulebook for what to do once you finish a series that’s so epic that you question your abilities as a writer. At least, that’s how I felt earlier this week after finishing Kingdom of Ash, and therefore, finishing the entire Throne of Glass series for the first time. And let me tell you, it has been a wild ride.

Warning: this series review has spoilers. So if you haven’t read every book, from The Assassin’s Blade to Kingdom of Ash, I strongly recommend you stop reading this review, and instead read the series. Then make sure to tell me once you did, so I can talk to someone about it!

I’ve been very open about the fact that I had a ten-year long reading slump while I was finishing school, and that finally, mercifully, ended last year once I dove head-first into the publishing world and saw the wonderful books, especially in young adult fantasy, that had come out while I wasn’t paying attention.

Throne of Glass was one of the fantasy series that immediately caught my eye, for many reasons. The covers were neat. I heard good things about a strong female lead, whispers of a romantic interest, and a very good friend of mine confirmed it was one of the best series she’d ever read. And that for me was the final push I needed. Plus, the hardcover set was on deep discount, so…

The memory of reading the first book brings back a chuckle, because although I was fairly confident the story would be good, based on the hype I’d noticed for the series, I really had no idea of what to expect. An assassin? A king’s tournament? Alright, fine.

Now here’s an important point I want to clarify. As much as the series was amazing, it wasn’t perfect. But I truly believe that the merits of this series far outweigh any negative points. And the progression of Maas’s writing was something that was also really interesting to see.

It would be impossible to write a fully comprehensible review of the entire series while only having read it once. But there are several aspects that I really enjoyed that I want to focus on, so let’s do that.

The first is a little obvious, but let’s talk about the story for a minute.

THE STORY

The series begins with Celeana Sardothien imprisoned in Endovier, where she undergoes forced labor and whippings for bad behaviour – which is often. It ends with Aelin Galathynius Whitethorn Ashryver, in her palace in Orynth, overlooking a field of Kingsflame flowers – a divine approval of her as ruler of Terrasen.

And there’s a lot that happens in between.

The story, from start to finish, was always engaging and interesting. And it was really refreshing that the series had an ever-evolving goal, that changed with the information that was made available to the reader. It made sense for the goal to change, because our understanding of the world of Erilea changed. And while the goals themselves were lofty and grand (killing the king, bringing magic back, wiping Erawan out of existence), the obstacles that were in the way of the goals were equally just as insurmountable.

One thing I also appreciated about the series is how everything tied in together. Characters that we met in passing in The Assassin’s Blade suddenly became really important in Empire of Storms. Conversations and threads that were spun in Throne of Glass kept re-appearing throughout the series, such as the Wyrdmarks, Wyrdstone, or tales of great shadows and evils of the past.  

So yes, the story remained fresh over the course of eight books, which is a huge undertaking. And each book was its own self-contained narrative, while also fitting into the broader series ecosystem. The planning that author Sarah J. Maas had to do before even laying pen to paper must have been incredible to see.

Now on to the second part of what made this series so awesome: the characters.

THE CHARACTERS

As with most fantasy stories, there are a ton of characters in the Throne of Glass series. Some are part of each book, some only make a brief appearance. And then some come to play a much larger role than anyone would have thought. But there are two particular strengths that applies to all of these characters that I was to draw attention to.

For one, each of these characters is vastly different. Aelin is a much different person than Sorscha or Elide, for example. And Chaol is different from Aedion and Rowan. This is really a testament to Maas’s character-building skills. It’s difficult to write so many characters and have each one feel like a real person with goals and aspirations. And in a world with as many characters as the Throne of Glass series, it can be difficult to remember each of their names. But if each of these characters feels like its own unique person, then it’s easier to distinguish them.

For example: I cannot remember each name of the Khagan’s children. But I recognize their personalities enough to know who the Ruk-rider one is versus the horse-rider one. And that in itself is an important accomplishment, because it is difficult to make an entire cast of characters all feel different from one another. Some characters are deeply flawed, but those flaws make them who they are and help in turn to advance the narrative.

Secondly, nearly every single important character goes through a change. If characters did not change over the course of eight books, then the series would have been stagnant. But miraculously, every single character goes through a drastic arc, some even going through multiple changes over the course of the series.

This development, to me, was crucial in keeping me glued to the series and reading as fast as I could. Character arcs like Manon’s, for example, made me feel invested in the series. And her redemption arc, if you will, was one of the strongest. Even Aelin goes through a host of changes, some brought about by internal goals, some by external circumstances. These character arcs kept the reading fresh and went hand in hand with what they were experiencing around them in the story.

So what does one do, after reading an epic series of this magnitude?

I’m asking for myself, because I’m not sure what the answer is. As a reader, the series was incredible in ways I never could have anticipated. But as a writer, a not insignificant part of me is jealous. Jealous of how this series came together, and concerned that I might never be able to tell as good a story.

Oh well. Brooding on that point won’t accomplish anything. I’m better off honing my craft and sharpening my skills.

On to the next read, right?

If you’re curious, I did find that Maas’s writing style, and mine, are similar. So if you’re looking for a high fantasy read, consider giving the Sapeiro Chronicles: A Forgotten Past a try!