Book Review: Bent Heavens

I read Oliver Twist recently, and this is billed as a sort of retelling or heavily inspired by the Dickens work. I remember Oliver and Company and other Oliver Twist retellings that I’ve enjoyed, so I look forward to investigating this book.

The Book(s)

Bent Heavens
Author: Daniel Kraus
2020
Amazon Link

There’s a bunch of body horror in this one, but that’s not the most “shocking” bit of this: it’s that a lot of the crazy stuff is done by children. If you don’t want to see children making reasonable but really gruesome and evil decisions, this isn’t for you.

While the book is YA, it’s probably not for a younger YA (more high school than middle grade reader). It’s definitely on the more intense end of YA. Also, if you’re a parent who thinks they might want to let their kid read this, I’d strongly suggest getting the kid to read Oliver Twist or an abridged version first. Definitely makes this book more worthwhile from an artistic perspective.

On With the Review!

Though at first this seems YA due to the youth of the characters, this book quickly turns everything around and becomes clearly adult with its dark, sinister plot and disturbing characters. While I loved the sense of dread present throughout the book, I would rather put up front that this book is in no way for everyone.

That being said, I loved this book. Kraus designed a set of believable seniors in high school and gave them typical concerns and societal pressures. He used these societal pressures to force the characters into performing their actions, and the characters responded marvelously. Something I found incredible was how these kids get a new, alien hunting extra curricular, and their school and social lives suffer for it. Olivia Fleming must choose between either avenging her father by pursuing information from an alien, or she can choose cross country. I was stunned by how Kraus led Olivia to make her decision.

Artistically, Bent Heavens was chock full of allusions, and the whole damn thing was an obvious allegory for Oliver Twist. I mean, come on – Olivia, with a dead father, and Oliver? The compass from the father? It was obvious. But Kraus didn’t focus on the nonsense extraneous parts of Oliver Twist, just the good parts I’d have kept if I’d made an abridged version of the Dickens classic.

And now, spoilers.

SPOILERS

Liv Fleming got caught up with her childhood friend, Doug, when Doug’s traps catch an alien. The rural setting and long-term closeness of Doug made it more reasonable that Liv would have kept hanging around that creeper despite his… creeperness. That Liv’s dad liked Doug and taught them both ways to fight the aliens was also sheer genius. Like Dickens did in Oliver Twist, Kraus put together the weird societal pressures of rural Iowa to make something reasonable in the world of the fantastic.

Next, the torture. Oh my God, I did not see the alien torture coming. It made sense once I got there, and the fact that Doug perpetrated it didn’t surprise me at all. He convinced Olivia to join him, reminiscent of Oliver Twist falling prey to criminals, and the insane gorefest just kept going. I do think that this part may have gone on too long or too far, but two kids torturing an alien in a shed in their backyard was something I’ve never seen before. Usually they talk with it, or hide it from the government in a friendly way, or the alien abducts them. Never do they choose to torture it in attempt to get revenge for another dead person.

Now, the super duper SUPER spoilers.

EVEN BIGGER SPOILERS

The alien wasn’t an alien.

By the time the twist was revealed, I kind of knew something wasn’t right and that somehow Liv’s dad wasn’t dead. I actually thought the aliens had turned Liv’s dad into an alien, but I didn’t expect THE GOVERNMENT MADE HIM AN INSANE CANCER MONSTER who thought he was being experimented on by aliens. HOLY EFFING CRAP BATMAN. The sheer madness of the Cold War like villainy and uncaring. The fact that Kraus used society’s racist tendencies to keep the secret a secret. It was amazing.

Once Liv found out that the creature they’d been torturing in her backyard was her dad, she went to save him by killing him and ending all the pain. There was more to it, including a fight with Doug in which Liv sadly became a damsel in distress, but in the end the conspiracy was completed and the story ended pretty similarly to the allegorical Oliver Twist.

Overall, the story was pretty great. Recommend for readers who enjoy suspense horror or dark fantasy/sci fi.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

What I’m Reading Next:

We’ll see.

Book Review: Gilded Wolves

First, I try to keep up with publishing trends as I can. This seems to be one of those “in vogue” type stories, so I’m going to read it. But why, oh why, does it seem like more YA gets published than adult books? Is it just that much more profitable? Is it just that much more advertised?

Whatever. Here we go.

The Book

Gilded Wolves
Author: Roshani Chokshi
2021
Amazon Link

I think this is perfectly billed as YA. It has the right amount of violence, love interest, character balance, and darkness. No concerns whatsoever with how this book presents itself, its material, or anything else. If it looks interesting to you, you can probably go in without expectation that anything will be truly disturbing for you.

Non-Spoiler Review

This book started out like a pretty normal steampunk fantasy. You have four kids with disparate talents and weaknesses, and they all have uncanny levels of education and skill. They want different goals that happen to align, and they fit the “found family” trope (especially because their biological families are dead or useless, etc.). I thought this was all ok, and I think anyone interested in YA would not bat an eye at how Chokshi writes these characters. The reason I think I made this 4 stars instead of 5 was because it did have those YA tropes that I feel cringey about.

I really liked the concept of the forge and how the world’s magic worked. Chokshi used these concepts to great effect in making her commentary on colonialism/post-colonialism. By using a diverse set of characters and not using their races in a tokenistic fashion, Chokshi came up with something devastatingly unique in a genre I find clogged with nonsense.

I was fascinated by the character concept of Laila. She was a stillbirth, but through the magic of her local area (India), her parents brought her back – questionably, we might add, with a soul. Her struggle was to either gain a soul or ensure she had one before her time on earth ran out. I did not like the very end where she entraps Severin into a relationship, but throughout most of the book that relationship is very tightly done.

I recommend this to fans of YA adventure or steampunk. If you like kids doing cringey YA things on a treasure hunt, this is for you.

4/5 Discoball Snowcones

Next week:

We’re going to read a classic mystery: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None!

Book Review: Dread Nation

Read the blurb of this on Amazon or Goodreads. How does this not just sound like one of the craziest, most hardcore things you’ve ever seen? How does this not just sound like a book I’d love?

Of course I was going to pick this up. I kept moving it back on my TBR in order to read things I found to be “more important”, but dude. Nothing’s more important than entertainment.

The Book(s)

Dread Nation
Authors: Justina Ireland
2018
Amazon Link

Good amount of fantasy/sci fi gore in this one. It’s suitable as YA, though, as long as you’re not too squeamish. Like a lot of books I’ve read recently, this one does have quite a bit of racial tensions that could cause those who experience negative race-based events to feel bad. That being said, I think Ireland’s book is very empowering and just HARDASS overall. There’s definite payoff to reading through the hard bits.

On With the Review!

This book was one of the most creative things I have ever read. Not only was it a fantastic alternate history (and fantasy/sci-fi, since it didn’t really try to explain the zombie disease mechanics too closely), it was YA I could get behind. There was a palpable sense of horror ever looming, but the bold and brash Jane McKeene almost protected the reader from it just as she did other characters in the book. Jane was very hardcore, and her struggle for survival and respect was a drive I could get behind. Jane was just wonderful.

Not just Jane, though; Katherine, Gideon, and the complicated and not-present character of Jane’s mother were very well done. Ireland made them all complex and filled with life. She gave them powers and flaws, and she gave Jane – the narrator – snap judgments that were sometimes proven and sometimes disproven. Her use of Jane’s limited perspective to investigate personal and societal relationships was fantastic.

Also, the twist about Jane’s backstory? I didn’t see it coming, but I could see after the reveal how Ireland had planted all the clues earlier. While that was the biggest twist (in my opinion), there were many twists as we learned more things that weren’t initially within Jane’s first-person-limited view. The build to where Jane starts to see multiple other characters more clearly and understand herself in relation to them was, undoubtedly, one of the best parts of the book.

What would I have changed? I’m not a huge fan of the way vaccines were represented in the book. The research undertaken by multiple scientists was both sketchy and bad science. Ireland was genius in a thematic way to include allusions to illegal and horrifying medical experimentation on black people, but the goal of the vaccine was never really seen as a good thing. It was always suspicious. Perhaps this 2018 anti-vaccine premise didn’t age well post-pandemic, but this part bothered me.

As a whole, great book.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

What I’m Reading Next:

Got bored, decided to check out an audiobook on the library’s “available now” list, which is always a crapshoot. Stay tuned for Ninth House!

Book Review: This is How You Lose the Time War

This book seemed to have an interesting title and premise. It also had dual authors, which isn’t terribly common. At the same time, I was skeptical because it seemed to be fitting the in-vogue, Twitter SJW stuff a bit too neatly. Still, it was at my library, so I picked it up.

The Book(s)

This is How You Lose the Time War
Authors: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
2019
Amazon Link

This is an epistolary romance with a lot of sci-fi. There was, if I recall correctly, nothing especially gruesome, sexy, or outside the typical PG-13.

That being said, it’s a hard read. Probably not for children or less mature teens, or pretty much anyone who isn’t fine with “boring”.

On With the Review!

This epistolary romance was intriguing in how the characters’ romance stemmed from one taunt into a flagrant love story. Since the Time War required the warriors Red and Blue to travel back and forth across the ages and universes, the timing of their escapades and how one event affected another was interesting. There was an essentially linear method to how the characters interacted, but the linearity of time itself was questionable.

And I just kind of didn’t get the story.

I didn’t find the romance believable. The characters never really met each other, and their teasing letters did not seem enough to foster deep feelings. The risk-reward ratio was entirely skewed against them, and there just was not enough reasonable communication for me to really get into the romance elements. The artfulness of the book did indicate it as a sort of sci-fi retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but the social elements were not compelling to me. The relationship between Red and Commandant and that between Blue and Garden didn’t seem right. The whole time war didn’t make sense, and the sci-fi elements felt like magic rather than science. Sure, there were plenty of sciency words, but it didn’t really come together in my opinion.

I found the book to be filled with some of the most beautiful purple prose I’ve ever read. The characters of Red and Blue had unique voices despite the excellent word choices of both narrators and letters, and it contributed to a very sensual book. At the same time, I thought it dragged despite being such a short book. It had altogether too many passages describing the act of taste and hunger and too few building to a storyline.

As a whole, I wasn’t really a fan, but I didn’t hate it and there were some good elements to it.

3/5 Discoball Snowcones

What I’m Reading Next:

This is a book I’ve moved backwards on my To Be Read list far too often: Dread Nation is a zombie book, and I look forward to it!

Book Review: A Dark Genesis

I like to frequent Berthold Gambrel’s review site, and once in a while I find a book that I think is going to be a very worthwhile read. This was one of those books, so I got a copy and set it where I wanted it on my to be read list.

The Book(s)

A Dark Genesis
Author: Cheryl Lawson
2020
Amazon Link

There are some medically gruesome scenes, body horror, and some violence. If you can do Star Trek or Farscape without cringing, though, this won’t have any effect on you. The only thing is that there’s quite a bit of that body horror; even if it’s light, some people may not like that.

On With the Review!

Sometimes, you just find an indie author and an indie book that is so smooth and likeable that it makes you think it should have been published traditionally. This book had all the cleverness of a GOOD episode of Star Trek, but the alien was truly alien. The humans were truly human (and highly varied). The challenges of space felt real rather than “just the wild west”. The only reason I think this would have been hard to publish traditionally is the length: novellas just so rarely have a place to go.

One of the best decisions Lawson made was to have a main character that wasn’t 100% likeable. Sure, you could get behind Sage and root for her, but she had pretty massive flaws and social quirks that allowed her to make mistakes without it feeling cheesy. A policy I believe in is that if good or bad things happen to characters in a book, it shouldn’t feel like coincidence. Many times, poor communication creates these unlikely coincidences in stories. I think Sage’s sometimes abrasive personality allowed for the poor communication, disbelief, and competition between humans to flourish. Just who Sage was made all the subsequent events fall into place realistically, whereas I believe they’d have been considered “coincidence” if Sage were a better person.

Next, the alien. I love non-humanoid aliens (though, sadly, non-humanoid aliens often put them out of the reach of TV or movie budgets). This alien seemed so close yet so far away from communicating with the crew. Without spoiling much, the plot was centered on the invasion of an alien onto a generational ship. The alien didn’t board through traditional means; it entered the ship as a spore on tiny space debris (think hail-sized or smaller) that the ship ran into. Slowly, the spore turned into A LOT MORE THAN A SPORE, and the ship went into crisis mode. This invader reminded me a bit of the Solaris alien, but way, way more defensive. Though some characters wanted to communicate with it, the alien was also extremely invasive and dangerous. Do the mains ever succeed at cracking into the alien’s ways and talking to it? Well, I’ll let you read it and find out how they solve the issue.

The body horror was good. The description of the “infections” was horrifying and brutal. The punch to the gut when certain characters get hurt and bite the dust is fantastic, especially given the short length of the book. Cheryl builds relationships between her characters, and they all make sense given they’re on a generational ship controlled by a very prim and conservative computer.

Though it’s on the back end of my TBR now, I have also purchased the second book in the series and will be reviewing that soon. Lawson’s good, y’all.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

What I’m Reading Next:

Interesting choice for the next one: How to Lose the Time War, another newer book that’s in vogue with the zeitgeist!

We’re Live!

That’s right, my friends – American Chimera is live, both as a paperback and as a Kindle book!

Kindle (US): $0.99

Paperback (US): $6.14 + shipping

If you are international, the ASIN for the Kindle is B0B3WPRQGZ, and the ASIN for the Paperback is B0B3DV6X2K. I’ve also got it on Goodreads now (no reviews, don’t expect any, haha!) in case you’re interested.

There’s one problem… I promised a free book. I had intended to get it free. But Amazon, in all its Bezos wonder, has decided not to let me post it free. It’s 99 cents for now, their minimum. The paperback is also at the Amazon minimum. However, when it gets to be time, I will try to do a promotional period for free and announce it here. If you want a free book, it’ll probably be in 90 days (or something thereabouts).

Lastly: thanks to Berthold Gambrel for his support and cheerleading.

Shutting Down AMERICAN CHIMERA

I recently posted that I am going to put American Chimera on Kindle rather than as a free book on my blog. Sadly, the day has arrived, and the posts and pages I created for the original book are being taken down (possibly as you read this, possibly just beforehand).

Never fear, though! The book is not gone forever, and it will still be available in a free e-book format. I received my proof copy of the print book in the mail last week, and I think I’ll be ready to publish by June 18th. The cover looked pretty good, and all I’ve been doing so far is reading to make sure all the kerning, spelling, and content is right.

(You wouldn’t believe how often you get a quote mark turned the wrong way! If you’re making a print book for Amazon, definitely get your proof copy and check for things like inverted quotation marks.)

I used to think all those people who got excited by the proof copy of their book were a bunch of nerds, but now that I actually have one of those copies in my hands, I understand how awesome it is. The “I made this” feeling is real. If you’re thinking about whether or not to try publishing (or self publishing), just know that everything they’re telling you is right. Holding that thing in your hands feels really successful.

The e-book and print options for American Chimera will be released this month, hopefully on June 18th! If I need to delay the date, I will let you know.

NEW COVER REVEAL

I’ve been pretty much sucking for a while on the blog. Most of it has to do with the fact that work has been INSANE the past couple of months, but the rest of it has to do with what I’ve used my free time for.

First, yes, I’ve been reading books – but I need to write reviews to post!

Second, I’ve been prepping something very special. I’ve edited (yeah, didn’t purchase editing, so don’t expect much), formatted, and re-done the cover for AMERICAN CHIMERA.

If you recall, I published American Chimera here on the site in 2020. It came out serially, and a few people read it. I’m terrible at advertising, so it’s not like I got it out to the world. Berthold Gambrel’s review of the book encouraged me a lot, as did a few emails I received from people who read it.

One thing I learned, though, was that a sketchy PDF download on a random site isn’t very attractive. A bunch of links on a website to get you to and from chapters and scenes isn’t very simple to use or find where you left off (unless you read it real time, which a few people did!). Others said they’d read it if it weren’t so hard to manage; reading should be easy, after all!

A Kindle book or an Amazon printed paperback is extremely easy for people to access. The problem? I think Bezos is a POS and I don’t want to fund him. It’s why I didn’t put it on Amazon in the first place.

However, I’ve decided it’s time to bite the bullet and use the system that’s more accessible for people. I’ve published quite a few short stories, and more are coming out soon. People may read one of my shorts, decide they want more, and be unable to find something else.

And, at least for now, Bezos won’t be getting your money for the ebook! He’ll only be getting a smattering of cash if you order a paperback! That free, free pricing won’t remain the case forever, probably. I think at some point, people treasure books that aren’t free, but free books are just garbage. I want to keep it free until I think my friends have gotten it, but then I might give it a price.

As a warning, I will be taking down my PDF copy and getting rid of the posts by June 5th! This is because Amazon doesn’t like competing, and I’m pretty sure it’s in the contract (for the free barcodes and ISBNs, anyway) that I can’t have the book appear other places. If you want to get the PDF or read the posts, do it before then! I’ll let you know when the Amazon publish date is once I get my proof copy and am sure everything’s working out.

Cheers, and hope you enjoy the product if you’re interested.

Book Review: The Anatomist’s Apprentice

I enjoyed The Alienist, and this looked to be similar: a forward-thinking doctor, even one who mostly just deals with corpses, works to solve murders or other ungainly crimes. This, however, is set in a different time period and place, and I think it could be entertaining. As it is set in the 18th rather than 19th century, medicine is even more of a mystery to the people. Heroic medicine is in play, and I was intrigued by the possibility that the titular “Anatomist” may come against people who think his ways against God.

The Book

The Anatomist’s Apprentice
Author: Tessa Harris
2012
Amazon Link

Fair warning: this book can be really, really gruesome. It’s not all the time, but it does happen often enough that someone sensitive to gore would find issue. There are some steamier scenes, but they’re not that bad. Violence does occur against women and children, but it is a relevant part of the plot and does not necessarily serve only as “motivation for a male character.”

But then I saw it was supposed to have Theodore Roosevelt as a character.

Y’all know I’m a complete and total sucker for presidents.  I had to read this thing.  I checked that audiobook out, regardless of any regret I may later feel.

Non-Spoiler Review

This book was fine. I thought a lot of the clues and mystery elements were interesting, but the “let’s go dig up a body and do a post-mortem partially for the gruesome explanations!” was a little… weird? Some of the autopsies, as well, just didn’t seem necessary or they found things that should have been obvious in the first place.

The interesting part, to me, was the historical bits. I enjoyed listening to the author’s take on 18th century medicine and practice, even if I don’t know enough about that history to tell if it was accurate. I’m pretty sure the main character wasn’t a real person, but the story surrounding him was cool. It didn’t seem like the American Revolution was affecting him much despite it going on at the time, but I think that might be saved for a later book.

The plotline as a whole did keep moving, and it held my attention well enough that I didn’t stop in the middle of the book. Even when it got a bit gruesome (there was a death of a 12-year-old in it, and it was very not good), I was able to keep going.

I also thought the ending was very weird, and I’m not sure the person “whodunit” was a good, satisfying solution. The love interest and romance parts of the story absolutely boggled my mind, and I didn’t understand why they were included at all. Whenever the story tended toward a smut angle, it just didn’t make sense. You have this gruesome autopsy-on-rotten-corpses bit adjacent to sexy times? The genres just didn’t blend, in my opinion, and I’m not sure the romance was well-done. A lot of the tension in the romance was predicated on the era’s social norms, but the norms weren’t felt strongly enough until after the romantic problem had ensued.

If you want a medical history mystery, I would suggest reading The Alienist instead. If you want a historical romance, read a Jane Austen.

3/5 Discoball Snowcones

Next week:

I might finish The Ten Thousand Doors of January… but then again I might not. As a spoiler, I’m having a hard time paying attention, and I keep setting it down.

Book Review: The Tides of Reckoning

This is the follow up to a book I read last year, The Outlands, by Tyler Edwards. It was a fun-filled romp, so hopefully this one will be too!

The Book

Tides of Reckoning (The Outlands, Book 2)
Author: Tyler Edwards
2021
Amazon Link

Much like the first book, this has a lot of intense action and situations. However, it still is relatively clean, and anything truly untoward is fulfilled offscreen and mentioned in leading if not explicit terms. There are several violent scenes, but nothing is gory beyond the point that an American audience wouldn’t be ok with. Children probably shouldn’t read this book, but a teen might be able to appreciate it.

On With The Review

“The Tides of Reckoning” was full of action and, much like the first book in the series, excellent twists. Though this one didn’t have the same level of betrayals, backstabbing, and subterfuge, the environment itself served to keep things ever changing and on edge.

The book opens in quite an epic way: Jett, the main character, encounters some pretty gnarly monsters. Unarmed, without any form of sustenance or shelter, Jett must figure out how to get to any form of settlement in order to survive. Of course, given that this is a book and books usually require certain amounts of communication with other sentients, I’ll go ahead and spoil that he does – in one form or another – find people.

Something that this book did was it accounted for the open threads at the end of book 1. Whether alive, dead, or somewhere in between, the characters in book 1 at least return or are mentioned long enough to figure out the next step and set up the next part of the story. As far as the non-Jett characters went, I rather enjoyed what happened to Lilly – her transformation was pretty epic. Pay attention to Becka, as well; she got a bigger slice of the screen this time, and her development added a lot to the story.

Continuing with the trend of speaking about the ladies, I’ll move on to the new characters: Kali. In addition to creating a love triangle alongside Jett and Lilly, Kali is another strong female character trying to make her way in a very patriarchal society. Something I like about Edwards’s writing is how Jett, the narrator, still sees things through a slightly patriarchal perspective (at least to a point – he’s by far not the worst in the book, and he tries hard), but Jett can still realize he’s been thinking about things wrong. It constantly shakes up the feelings and information within the pages and shows how mood and tone are distinct and matter so much. It’s delicious how Edwards can take male gaze and flip it on its head. With Kali, especially in something he does at the end, Edwards does this very well.

As far as concepts go, I’m hoping there will be more about the Triblings in book 3. The Triblings are native to the Outlands and, as such, aren’t quite the same as the human outcasts of Dios or the other domed cities. Rowan, in “The Tides of Reckoning”, is the primary Tribling of note, but he’s quiet and doesn’t say much. We learn that he’s had a rocky and traumatic past, but beyond that, he’s mysterious and superpowered. I’d like to know more about them – and maybe why they haven’t become the leaders of the wastelands.

Last, and I can’t say much without spoilers, the villain in this book was very good. I think I actually liked him better than the Patriarch because he had a backstory that was interesting.

Complaints about the book were mostly that some of the fights and challenges were solved by luck or another, uncontrollable event. It was never a big letdown, but sometimes that tricky environment would work for the characters in unexpected but positive ways. It also worked against them at other times, so it should balance out, but I rarely like convenient solutions to problems in book. It’s just the way I am. Jett’s strengths and weaknesses also didn’t feel terribly consistent; I get the feeling he’s supposed to be like Hazel in Watership Down, wherein he’s really good at delegation and motivation. However, he’s also sometimes got powers in terms of personal combat, or strategy, or whatever is convenient. Other times, he doesn’t, and it often depends on plot. Like with the random environmental effects, it’s never a major dealbreaker, but it’s a subtle thing that I noticed.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

SPOILERS Review

I don’t like spoilers for new books, but I will say this: I love Edwards’s endings. He does wrap up enough loose threads that I felt satisfied by the end, but he left a fantastic spoiler that made me NEED that next book. Ugh, why is it not already out?!?

What I’m Reading Next:

My computer’s recent demise has caused me to fall very behind on my post schedule. As a result, I’m going to fill you in on some of the reads I’ve done since then as I read through the large follow up to Uphadyay’s Secrets of Plants in the Environment!