Light From Uncommon Stars: A Review

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka AokiShizuka Satomi has spent years building up her reputation as the Queen of Hell. It’s a name fitting for someone with her reputation of building up violin prodigies–more fitting than most people realize.

Shizuka made a deal with the devil forty-nine years ago. Now, if she wants to keep her own soul–and her own prodigious success–she has to deliver seven souls. With six delivered and one soul left, Shizuka should feel secure. But she doesn’t. She wants her last soul to belong to someone special. Someone she’s been struggling to find for years already.

Katrina Nguyen is a transgender runaway with no one to turn to. She has her hormones, her laptop, and her violin and she knows no matter how bad things get she can survive if she has those things. When Shizuka offers to help life Katrina lift her up, it seems too good to be true. As Katrina comes closer to Shizuka’s secrets she realizes how true her initial doubts really are.

From a donut shop on a highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Lan Tran is slowly drawn into this Faustian drama. A retired starship captain with four children to support and protect, Lan has her own priorities. She wants to keep a low profile at Starrgate Donuts for herself and her family. Which is why her blossoming crush on Shizuka is so inconvenient–especially when Lan realizes it might be mutual.

As Shizuka, Katrina, and Lan are drawn into each others’ lives, the three women begin to realize that in order to overcome their separate challenges they might just need each other in Light From Uncommon Stars (2021) by Ryka Aoki.

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Light From Uncommon Stars is a blend of sci-fi and fantasy elements in a contemporary California setting. The close third person narration shifts between Shizuka, Katrina, Lan, and other pivotal characters.

Aoki expertly blends these seemingly disparate elements into a seamless story filled with heart and hope even as Katrina, particularly, deals with rejection, hate, and sexual assault. Katrina also spends part of the novel as a sex worker while she tries to survive on the streets–an element that is handled thoughtfully but is still, understandably, heavy.

This evocative novel is imbued with a strong love of music and filled with delicious food descriptions. Light From Uncommon Stars is a sprawling story of redemption and connection. Recommended for readers looking for a novel that defies both expectations and genre classifications.

Possible Pairings: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers, The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee, The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. Liu, Gideon the Ninth by Tamysn Muir, Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett, Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Steelstriker: A Review

*Steelstriker is the conclusion to Lu’s Skyhunter duology. Start at the beginning with Skyhunter to avoid spoilers.*

Steelstriker by Marie LuSix months after the fall of Mara, the Karensa Federation works mercilessly to absorb the formerly free nation into its sprawling empire. Mara’s artifacts are carted to Federation museums and sculpture gardens, their heritage erased. Prisoners await execution or transformation into Ghosts–the hideous monsters the Federation uses so effectively against both its enemies and its subjects.

Talin Kanami watches helplessly. Once an elite Striker, Talin and her friends tried to stop the Federation’s invasion but they were too late. Now Talin stands at the Premier’s side as a Skyhunter–a human turned war machine with lethal strength and steel wings. Talin is the Premier’s unspoken threat against all who would defy him. She is also his hostage; her good behavior ensuring her captive mother’s continued survival until Talin’s transformation is complete and the Premier controls her completely.

Red escaped the Federation once, his desperate flight bringing him to Mara and to Talin. Her hope made him believe things could change. But now watching another invasion, his wings damaged in battle, the first Skyhunter knows he will need more than rage and regret to help his new friends–especially Talin in Steelstriker (2021) by Marie Lu.

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Steelstriker is the conclusion to Lu’s Skyhunter duology. Start at the beginning with Skyhunter to avoid spoilers.

Chapters alternate between Talin and Red’s first person narrations as the protagonists try to find their way back to each other and continue fighting the Federation. The strong link they shared in book one is weaker now as Talin struggles to contain her emotions before the Premier can use them against her. Isolated and worried about each other, this leads to repetition in the story as both Talin and Red wonder what has become of the other.

Seeds of rebellion and resistance spark action in this story which expands the sophisticated and nuanced world building from book one. Questions of who is fit to run a nation and how power is bestowed add further depth to the book’s political landscape while references to Talin’s tortuous transformation (which occurred between books) remind readers how very dangerous and cruel the Federation can be. As the Premier tries to harness (presumably nuclear) technology from the Early Ones, it becomes clear that sometimes mistakes are doomed to repeat.

Lu once again delves into the brutality of war and invasion as Talin–whose vocal chords were damaged in the invasion of her birthplace, Basea–and Red–who was recruited by the Federation as a child soldier–both reflect on what has brought them to this point. Steelstriker fast-paced and brutal but ultimately a satisfying conclusion to a strong dystopian duology.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

A Psalm for the Wild-Built: A Review

“The human body can adapt to almost anything, but it is deceptively selective about the way it does so.”

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky ChambersSibling Dex begins to dream of hearing crickets in the wild. Sibling Dex is very good at what they do as a monk in Panga’s city-located monastery. But have they become complacent?

Thinking the answer might be yes, Dex decides to become a tea monk. There’s nothing arcane about it but there is still a learning curve as Dex figures out how to listen to peoples’ problems and offer them a perfectly brewed cup of tea. With a self-sustaining wagon and increasing experience, Dex has everything they need.

But it turns out crickets are extinct in most of Panga.

After years of traveling the same route between Panga’s outermost villages, Dex decides their last chance to hear those crickets is to travel even farther out. Into the wild.

Then Dex meets Splendid Speckled Mosscap in the middle of the forest. Mosscap is one of the many robots on Panga who, after gaining self-awareness a century ago, chose to abandon the city and travel into the wild.

Now, the robots feel it’s time to check in on the humans and see what they need. And Mosscap has decided that Dex is the perfect person to help it figure that out. But as Dex struggles to figure out what they want for themself, the monk doubts that they can help a robot answer such a large question for all of Panga. Maybe there will at least be some crickets along the way in A Psalm for the Wild-Built (2021) by Becky Chambers.

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A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the first novella in Chambers’ new solarpunk series, Monk & Robot.

Chambers turns her considerable world building talents to imagine a bright future for humanity where society is harmonious, sustainable, and sees robots as little more than the stuff of legend until Mosscap comes along.

The gentle, character-driven narrative gives readers ample time to get to know Dex and understand the nuances of their work as a tea monk (as well as Dex’s restlessness) as Dex travels alone and, later, when Dex and Mosscap begin to talk. Philosophical questions of how robots and humans can (or should) interact as well as discussions of where passions can fit into this future pepper the story as Dex and Mosscap begin to understand what they can accomplish together.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the bright start to a series that promises to be as thought-provoking as it is cozy. Recommended for readers looking for science fiction with a little more tenderness and a lot of tea.

Possible Pairings: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Ryka Aoki, Last Day by Ruta Domenica, Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh, The Sol Majestic by Ferrett Steinmetz, Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, All Systems Red by Martha Wells

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Defy the Fates: A Review

*Defy the Fates is the third book in Claudia Gray’s Constellation trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars.*

Defy the Fates by Claudia GrayAfter their first unlikely meeting, Abel and Noemi Vidal have traveled the Loop together, saved Genesis forces from annihilation in battle, and stopped an intergalactic plague.

Now, to save Noemi one last time, Abel will have to risk everything including his own cybernetic body as he seeks help from his creator and potential destroyer.

Left for dead, Noemi doesn’t know what it means when she is saved thanks to parts that make her eerily similar to Abel. Not quite mech, but not quite human Noemi is no longer sure if she has a place on her home world anymore than she knows if she has what she needs to save Abel.

As Earth prepares for the final battle with its colony planets, Noemi and Abel once again find themselves at the center of the conflict. With the final battle looming, this unlikely pair will finally see if they’ve done enough to save the colony planets–and each other in Defy the Fates (2019) by Claudia Gray.

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Defy the Fates is the third book in Claudia Gray’s Constellation trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars. The novel alternates between Abel and Noemi’s first person narrations.

Gray builds well on the tension and world building from previous installments in this fast-paced trilogy. The stakes are higher and the dangers are greater as the story builds toward its dramatic finish.

Because of the plot structure, numerous recaps of previous triumphs and battles are repeated throughout the story which diminish the tension. As Noemi and Abel continue to struggle with the question of where they each belong–both together and apart–some of this installment does start to feel like filler.

Defy the Fates is a solid conclusion to an action-packed trilogy perfect for readers who enjoy sci-fi and adventure with just a hint of romance. Fans of the series will appreciate the callbacks to pivotal moments and characters from earlier in the series.

Possible Pairings: Bound by Blood and Sand by Becky Allen, Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, Beta by Rachel Cohn, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Stitching Snow by R. C. Lewis, Skyhunter by Marie Lu, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Partials by Dan Wells

Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel: A Review

Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel by Ned Vizzini, adapted by David Levithan, illustrated by Nick Bertozzi Jeremy Heere is an average high school boy even though his decided lack of popularity sometimes makes him feel well below average. Jeremy pines for the beautiful Christine and wishes he could figure out all the rules the popular kids seem to know out so easily to be, well, popular.

Then Jeremy learns about the squip. It’s from Japan. Quantum nano-technology CPU. The quantum computer in the pill will travel through your blood until it implants in your brain and it tells you what to do.

With a pill-sized supercomputer telling him what to do, Jeremy knows he can finally win over Christine, gain popularity, and become the coolest guy in school. But as Jeremy relies more and more on the squip’s influence, he’ll have to decide if being cool is worth giving up on being himself in Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel (2021) by Ned Vizzini, adapted by David Levithan, illustrated by Nick Bertozzi.

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Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel is, as you might have guessed, the graphic novel adaptation of Vizzini’s 2004 novel by the same name. The original book also inspired a musical adaptation which I may more or may not have quoted in my booktalk above–did you catch the reference?

Levithan’s adaptation of the text works well to bring the book into graphic novel form. Bertozzi’s illustrations are primarily black and white with blue as an accent color. This choice works very well to focus reader attention as the story moves forward. It’s worth noting that this a faithful adaptation of Vizzini’s original text which features a dramatically different story arc than the musical.

Readers familiar with the story but new to graphic novels will enjoy this new format even without the madcap changes found in the musical. Recommended for readers looking for a contemporary graphic novel with elements of speculative fiction and caustic wit.

Possible Pairings: Simon Vs. The Homo-Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Deacon Locke Went to Prom by Brian Katcher, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon

The Echo Wife: A Review

The Echo Wife by Sarah GaileyEvelyn Caldwell is at the top of her game professionally, at the vanguard of clone research, and the recipient of a prestigious award for her work in clone conditioning.

Which is why it’s even more important that no one know about Evelyn’s personal life falling apart.

Everyone knows about the divorce and her husband’s affair–those are hard to hide. But no one can know that his new wife, Martine, is actually Evelyn’s clone. Made illegally with her award-winning research and technology.

Martine is soft where Evelyn is hard. She’s everything Evelyn swore she’d never let herself become. Still when Evelyn’s good-for-nothing ex-husband turns up dead, Evelyn and Martine find themselves reluctantly working together to cover up the crime in The Echo Wife (2021) by Sarah Gailey.

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Cloning, in general, can be an unpleasant subject made more so here by Evelyn’s focus area. In an eerily plausible world with more advanced cloning technology, she has made a name for herself in clone research and conditioning–the work of making sure a clone is exactly like its source subject including all relevant blemishes and injuries. Therefore it’s no surprise that Evelyn’s first person narration is clinical and filled with sharp edges.

While Gailey continue to demonstrates their remarkable range as an author, The Echo Wife is often too detached as it veers toward deeply unsettling. Much like Evelyn’s public presentation, every piece of this book is deliberately presented to frame the story in a certain light. Whether than can ever be a favorable light for our protagonist remains to be seen.

The Echo Wife is a fast-paced, often chilling blend of science fiction and suspense. Recommended for readers who prefer their protagonists to be morally ambiguous.

Possible Pairings: My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, Our Life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq, The Survival of Molly Southborne by Tade Thompson

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

No One Here is Lonely: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Change almost always starts with something tiny, far from the surface. With movement too small to notice or gauge, that travels up and changes something else, until there’s a long chain of altered things and then everything is different.”

No One Here is Lonely by Sarah EverettEden has always cared about two people a little more than anything else: her best friend Lacey and her longtime crush Will, even if he doesn’t know it.

When Will is killed in a car crash, Eden is haunted by the chances she didn’t take, the what ifs that she’ll never be able to answer. Worse, she realizes that she’s losing Lacey too as they begin to grow apart and the last summer before college that Eden envisioned for them goes up in smoke.

Alone with her grief, alone as she discovers that her parents’ perfect marriage might not be so perfect, Eden isn’t sure who to confide in when it feels like everything is changing. Then she finds out Will set up an account with In Good Company–a service that uses a person’s voice, emails, and other online records to create a digital companion.

The Will Eden talks to on the phone isn’t real. She knows that. But he also feels like the only person who has time for her now. As Lacey tries to figure out who she is without Lacey, she starts a new job and makes new friends. All with Will cheering her on.

As Eden is drawn to Oliver–Lacey’s twin brother–Eden will have to decide if choosing to focus on the future is worth letting go of the last pieces of her past in No One Here is Lonely (2019) by Sarah Everett.

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Everett’s sophomore novel blends light sci-fi elements with contemporary themes in this story of grief and growth. Eden and Will are Black (as is one of Eden’s new coworkers) while the other characters are assumed white.

Eden is completely adrift at the start of this novel. Will and the future with him that Eden imagined was one bold move away are gone. Lacey, a constant in Eden’s life for years, acts like their previous inside jokes are immature and wants to spend time with other newer friends. Then, at the worst possible time, Eden ends up in the middle of her parents’ marriage when she discovers signs of infidelity.

Despite knowing that In Good Company only offers a digital facsimile of a person, Eden clings to it–and to Will–as she tries to figure out who she is without all of the previous constants in her life. While there are hints of romance as Eden is drawn to Oliver, a friend she was never allowed to consider as more than an acquaintance out of loyalty to Lacey, this is really a story about a girl coming into her own and learning howto be her own best support.

No One Here is Lonely is a thoughtful story about grief, friendships, and learning to love yourself best.

Possible Pairings: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

Strange Exit: A Review

“No one earned their salvation. Only the rich and lucky survived.”

Strange Exit by Parker PeevyhouseIn the advance of a nuclear holocaust, a group of teenagers won a lottery to escape Earth aboard a spaceship designed to keep them safe until it was time to return. In stasis all of the passengers enter a complex virtual reality simulation to prepare them for that return.

After sleeping for decades, many of them are still unwilling to wake up–unwilling to admit that even the sim’s barren wastelands might be worse than what they’ll face on Earth after being gone so long.

But the ship was never meant to house them forever. Food is running out. Equipment is breaking down. Still the ship won’t return to Earth. Not until everyone is out of the sim.

No one is supposed to go back in; it’s too easy to get trapped, to want to stay forever. But someone has to wake the sleepers so Lake risks it. She secretly searches the sim’s post-apocalyptic pockets for survivors ready to wake up while desperately wishing her sister was on board the ship too instead of just part of the sim.

When she rescues Taren, Lake finds an unexpected ally ready to help her search the sim. But as the situation on the ship becomes even more dire, Lake realizes Taren is willing to take dangerous chances waking the sleepers and to sacrifice whoever he has to if it means reactivating the ship. Lake isn’t ready to lose anyone else on the ship, not after they’ve all lost so much. Now Lake will to work against Taren to find the heart of the sim and shut it down herself before it’s too late in Strange Exit (2020) by Parker Peevyhouse.

Find it on Bookshop.

The story alternates close third person narration primarily from Lake’s point of view with chapters from other key characters including Taren. While the story starts strong with an engrossing opening, it is slow to build to any of the twists readers familiar with the genre may expect. Similarly, the characters who receive the most attention are often at cross purposes with the plot’s forward momentum.

Strange Exit is an eerie science fiction story set against the stark backgrounds of a failing spaceship and the ominous post-apocalyptic sim. Peevyhouse’s world building is top notch as she brings both landscapes painfully to life bringing new dimension to what is otherwise familiar sci-fi territory.

Possible Pairings: To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers, Dare Mighty Things by Heather Kaczynski, Warcross by Marie Lu, The Final Six by Alexandra Monir, Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh, Across the Universe by Beth Revis, The Matrix

Do You Dream of Terra-Two?: A Review

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi OhA century ago, an astronomer discovered a planet orbiting a star. Decades before anyone had the technology to confirm it, she predicted that the planet was Earth-like and habitable; that humanity would one day colonize it. She dreamed of the animals and plant life astronauts would find there.

Now, six teenagers are about to embark on the twenty-three year trip that will bring them to Terra-Two. They, along with four veteran astronauts commanding the crew, are Earth’s best hope for a second chance.

After years of training, the crew will travel for twenty-three years to get to Terra-Two. Along the way some of them will dream of their new home, some of them will fear it and the gaping unknown of their journey. They will mourn what they have left behind and what they might never see if their missions fails in Do You Dream of Terra-Two? (2019) by Temi Oh.

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Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is Oh’s first novel.

There’s no gentle way to say this: Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is a downer. Readers well-versed in stories of space travel know, as well as these characters do, that something always goes wrong. In this book many things go wrong leaving every characters scrambling to salvage a mission that may or may not be sheer folly.

Oh packs a lot of interesting things into this story with alternating third person point of view between the young astronauts. Unfortunately these voices often become indistinguishable as the characters contend with similar moments of existential dread and imposter syndrome alongside any of their individual issues.

The world building in Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, particularly the shady practices of the school that has trained the young astronauts, is fascinating but fails to gel thanks to an ending that leaves most questions unanswered. Will the mission succeed? Will it be worth the sacrifice? Neither the characters nor readers may be entirely sure by the end of this character driven story.

Possible Pairings: To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers, Dare Mighty Things by Heather Kaczynski, The Final Six by Alexandra Monir, Strange Exit by Parker Peevyhouse

The Refrigerator Monologues: A Review

“Bad things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to okay people. Bad things happen to everyone.”

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente, illustrated by Annie WuEveryone is dead in Deadtown. Sometimes there are second chances. Do-overs, if you know the right people. But sometimes, at the end of the day, you’re dead and you stay that way.

Paige Embry knows that. Knows she’s more famous now for being dead than she ever was for being alive, for being herself, or even for being Kid Mercury’s girlfriend. It’s just one of those things.

She isn’t the only one.

In fact, there are a lot of them down in Deadtown: The women the heroes had to lose so they could grow. The ones who named them, the ones who helped them understand their new powers, the ones who broke them out, their rivals, their lovers, their teammates.

In Deadtown they call themselves the Hell Hath Club. They’re mostly very beautiful, very well-read, and very angry. They meet every day at the Lethe Café.

There isn’t a lot to do when you’re dead, but everyone in Deadtown loves a good story and at the Hell Hath Club everyone is welcome. All you have to do is pull up a seat, grab your cup of nothing, and listen in The Refrigerator Monologues (2017) by Catherynne M. Valente, illustrated by Annie Wu.

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Paige’s narration connects short stories following members of the Hell Hath Club as they share their version of origin stories–the stories of how they died and wound up in Deadtown. Wu’s illustrations break up the stories in The Refrigerator Monologues lending an even stronger comic book sensibility to the book.

Each story has Valente’s snappy, mesmerizing prose as the Hell Hath Club’s strange and melancholy stories unfold. Like the club members themselves, The Refrigerator Monologues is angry and unflinching–a searing collection tied together with feminist rage and both an abiding love for and deep frustration with popular superhero and comic book tropes.

Possible Pairings: The Supervillain and Me by Danielle Banas, Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, Renegades by Marissa Meyer, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti