Book Review: Where Darkness Meets Light

“A poetry collection depicting the trials and tribulations of living with mental illness and the journey of one girl’s struggles to try and overcome them.”

Where Darkness Meets Light by Sabrine Elouali is a poetry collection centering around the difficult experience of mental illness including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s at different moments desperate or hopeful, expressing the juxtaposition of the struggle of mental illness to honor your suffering and fight the temptation to give in to it. There were a few poems that blew me away, as if the author saw into my own struggle with mental health and was able to express it from an angle that was both beautiful and haunting.

Elouali doesn’t promise a smooth ride from the beginning. The collection opens with poems centering on tough decisions during life’s at times impossible challenges, loneliness and neglect. As the narrative progresses we see different glimpses into the author’s mind, and find it to be a familiar, albeit dark place. But we also see the glimpses of light that will form a lifeline, rather than leaving us to waste away in the darkness—a purposeful decision by the author, which I’m certain represents their own dedication to not become stagnant.

From the perspective of someone with mental health concerns, I could appreciate the depth to which Elouali covered the disorders and subjects raised, while not relying on the “toxic positivity” trend that is so prevalent in mental health advocacy. While not all the poems affected me on a personal level (to be expected in a collection of poetry) many of them touched on things even I haven’t been able to express adequately on my own.

Audience

If you or anyone you know has mental health issues, this is a collection that would be well worth your time. It takes a deep dive into some tough issues, but does it in a way that’s palatable and profound. If you’ve experienced these struggles yourself, it will feel like looking into a mirror at times. If you’ve watched loved ones struggle with these issues, this is one way to better understand their mindset and the battle they face.

From a poetic perspective, the majority of the poems follow a rhyming scheme, with a few outliers such as OCD And Me breaking that pattern purposefully, and to brilliant effect. They vary in length and tone, but follow a definitive narrative through the book, from a life of darkness to that of lightness—though not in a caustically positive way. I’d say the resolution feels more realistically hopeful, which feels all the more attainable for those of us struggling. The idea of things one day being sunshine and rainbows feels unrealistic and almost crass when history has taught us that happiness is fleeting, and mental illness comes in waves or stages.

What this book is not is a way to assure the mentally stable that mental illness can be cured through the power of positive thinking. If you’re looking for a shallow coffee table book filled with positive phrases and mantras, this is not the book for you. If you’re looking for a realistic, down to earth book that makes a concerted effort to tackle the very difficult subject of mental health in a way that both honors the struggle and portrays there being still hope, look no further.

What I Liked

Personally I gravitate to more free-form poetry, which is probably why the poems that broke the rhyming pattern really resonated with me. But there’s also an argument to be made that it could also be their differentiation that brought them to my attention. Regardless, rhyming or no, each poem had a purpose—there was nothing superfluous or padded in this collection. Everything was slimmed down to bare bones to achieve a goal.

My favorite poem was the quietly profound A Veiled Window; I immediately messaged a friend about it because I was shaken by how much it resonated with me. Some other favorites included the aforementioned OCD And Me, Paper, and Your Brain. There were so many moments reading this that I had to re-read and bookmark because they made so much sense to me based off what I’ve personally experienced.

This is one of those books that I would get copies of to give to my friends who also struggle with mental health issues. Those of us who have been there can relate to these patterns, behaviors, challenges, and thoughts. But most importantly, the hope that Elouali offers by the end of the collection feels like the first warm breeze of spring or a drizzle on a hot summer day. It’s a relief so palpable you can feel it like the quenching of a thirst, and it’s something that’s meant to be shared.

Trigger Warnings: Mental Illness (Depression, Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), Reference to Suicidal Ideation

Book Review: Elemental

Enter an urban fantasy world where elves, vampires, weres, djinn, and others maintain a precarious balance of power in North Carolina. Welcome to Otherside.

Elemental by Whitney Hill is an urban fantasy based in North Carolina with an elemental sylph private eye main character, filled with supernatural intrigue that kept me guessing. Like the spellcaster she portrays, the misdirection and sleight of hand that Hill employs along with a healthy dose of character backstory and political chaos kept me on the edge of my seat, making this one of my favorite books I’ve read on my blog to date.

Arden Finch is a private investigator in Durham, North Carolina. When a client comes to her asking for her to find his missing grandmother, her biggest concern isn’t that he doesn’t want the police involved. Neither is that he’s actually an elf, nor is it that she is an elemental. More importantly, is that if he knew what she was, he’d be asking for her head, rather than for her help.

Then again, Arden Finch was used to being in danger. Being asked for help from elves? Not her normal assignment. Despite being one of the Otherside—supernatural creatures hiding under the radar from humans—Arden has always been an outsider, only taking on mundane assignments for her own protection. But her emotionally distant mentor, Callista, has her investigating in some strange places, and this case may be more than what Arden is willing to take on.

Elves aren’t the only ones Arden has to worry about.

Audience:

If you like urban fantasy, this is one-hundred percent a must-read. Hill is someone to watch out for in the genre, coming into the fold with an olympian effort right off the bat. It’s hard to believe this is her debut release. The book is action packed, with well-developed characters and a complex plotline with a web of political and character motivations to make your head spin. It’s a great start to a series that I’m excited to see through until the end.

What I Liked:

There’s an adage in writing to ‘write what you know.’ While many writers seem to scoff in the face of this piece of advice and go for the most showy of settings, Hill stuck with the place she knew by heart (coincidentally, a place I know as well, having lived there for several years myself.) Rather than trying to shy away from real-life details, Hill creates a strong sense of place based on named landmarks, climate, and other minutia. She aimed for the bleachers and was very careful to add enough particulars that made the setting come to life. It was enough to bring back fond memories for me… minus the werewolves, vampires and djinn, of course.

In Arden I found a character that was easy to empathize with and idolize. She’s been raised to be obedient and not question her role despite being a private investigator and independent in her work. Her character is nuanced and complex, and her development through the story enraptured me. I felt a kinship not just at her struggle to apply her strength to her own autonomy of place in the world, but also at her effort to balance doing what was right with what was best for her own needs. I think her conflicts are ones we can all relate to, albeit not with the advent of elemental powers and at the behest of gods and supernatural creatures.

And speaking of which, the supernatural community was unique and well developed. Rather than relying on typical tropes and stereotypes, Hill used her own research and imagination to create a mythology that was based off history and archetypes along with her own flair. Rather than go the Tru Blood route of Southern urban fantasy and using the same tried and true script, Hill created her own Appalachian and Southern fantasy world that I can’t wait to read more about.

At the end of the day, Elemental was a book that left me wanting to read more. It seems like such a simple element (pun unintended) of a good book, but it’s one of the most important to developing a series. There needs to be the balance of satisfaction and asking for more, and Hill did a fantastic job of leaving me feeling like there was enough signed, sealed and delivered at the end of this novel, with just enough to keep me wondering what it really was inside that envelope.

Trigger Warnings: Physical violence, Death, Slurs (not toward any real racial or ethnic group/identity), Threat of Sexual Violence.

Book Review: Just A Little Wicked

“Put away your broomsticks and get out your cauldrons; it’s time to settle in for some frightfully delicious reads.”

Just A Little Wicked edited by Lily Luchesi is a massive paranormal and urban fantasy anthology of short stories and novel teasers that centers around the mystery and mayhem of witches and mages. It’s equal parts dark and fanciful, taking us on journeys across lands, between dimensions and through time while revealing magic, both good and evil, that thrums barely contained within our veins.

The concept for Just A Little Wicked is simple: bring together different authors in the paranormal and urban fantasy genres around a central theme, witches and magic, to tease and entertain in an almost 800-page volume. Even ignoring that such an endeavor must have been somewhat of a nightmare to organize—Luchesi you must be a saint!—the docket is also full of New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors. Suffice to say, At $0.99 on Kindle, I feel like this is some sort of theft, or possibly witchery on its own, so it may be worth pre-ordering before the spell wears off and the authors come to their senses.

Audience:

I want to start my review by saying this book is massive. It’s well worth every penny, because at its core, this is a gateway for expanding your to be read shelf. This is a great anthology to give you a taste for a variety of authors and their series offerings. The stories ranged from whimsical with a dash of humor to quite dark, testament to how vastly different authors can take the same theme. There was still the same thread of spells gone wrong throughout the whole book, which helped tie the disparate threads together.

Ideally this book should be read with the knowledge that few of these stories are complete in and of themselves; therefore, expect to get hooked on quite a few with cliffhangers! This is meant to tease you into a series and get you interested in the authors larger body of work. There are a few stories that could be considered self-contained though they are part of a larger series, such as The Best Witch in Town and Morgana’s Revenge.

Be warned, some of these stories are not for the faint of heart. Such stories as When Echoes Call and Blood Sacrifice are pretty dark with plenty of trigger warnings to be aware of. If you have concerns of possible triggers, please see the bottom of the review for ]Trigger Warnings.

What I Liked:

Different authors approached witches from different angles, from the tried and true evil versions willing to sacrifice virgins and mired in their ambitions, to the kindly neighborhood witch that peddles friendly spells and respects the laws of nature and virtue. It could sometimes be a bit of whiplash going between these two types of stories, so it may be best to read these stories in different sittings. 

I definitely have my favorites, but overall I was impressed by the calibre of work and ability of the stories to capture my attention, leaving me wanting more. There are of course stories that resonated with me more than others, but there weren’t really any ‘duds’ to speak of.

(Disclosure: I was provided an Advance Reader Copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.)

Trigger Warnings: Explicit Sexual Content, Rape and Sexual Assault, Torture, Attempted Infanticide, Human Sacrifice, Execution

Book Review: Fated

Four hundred years ago, they sailed across oceans and found a love for the ages.
Today, they must cross time to save it… and their lives.

Fated by Lila Mina is a supernatural romance with multicultural mythological references and the transmigration of souls across time. This genre-bending mixture of historical and modern settings, LGBTQ+ polyamorous relationships, and divine intervention by myth and deities create a unique blend of true to life and arcane trials that leaves the reader breathless page after page.

Four hundred years ago, the Japanese warlord Date Masamune had fought and won his war and secured his clan’s standing as innovators with the help of his warrior wife, Kyoko. He’s determined to be the one who will take Japan across the oceans in their new galley ships, with the help of a handsome Spanish ship-captain, Sebastian Vizcaino. And if their relationship is more than business, well—who would question a warlord?

Not all goes to plan. Sebastian has brought with him more than spices, in the shape of an unheard-of woman navigator and foreigner, Ana. When turmoil erupts before they can even meet, Date is forced into a precarious political position before finding himself swept away to an entirely different time altogether.

In modern-day, partners Lana, Yuki, and Honda are learning to breathe after the strangeness of their supernatural adventures. Instead of the affairs of deities and demons, they are, for a change, concerned about something more mundane: bringing home Francisco, the final pillar in their relationships. 

All seems to be going well, when Honda takes a sudden turn, claiming to be Date Masamune himself.

Audience:

For fans of paranormal romance, neither the supernatural intrigue nor the steamy sex scenes will come as a surprise. But if you’ve come for either of them, you’ll be staying for the exquisite world-building, varied character development, and unexpected plot twists that make this novel stand out.

As far as paranormal romances go though, there are other non-technical aspects that are unique as well. For one, the characters are in their forties. I thought that not relying on the 20-something standard was a brilliant move on Lila Mina’s part, and I hope to see more authors take that stance. Instead of a monogamous relationship, this novel features a four-way polyamorous family, including a lesbian and gay relationship. This is portrayed in a really authentic way, and I loved the inclusiveness of seeing different relationship models shown as viable lifestyles.

This novel also features some traditional and non-traditional references and manifestations of different religious and mythological deities, spirits, and demons, including Shinto, Buddhist, and Roman. While these have, of course, been seen in other novels, this exact combination and iteration is well-researched and unusual. This probably has much to do with Mina’s experience living in Europe and Japan at different times in her life. 

What I Liked:

By far my favorite parts of Fated were when I was so caught up in the action and the world-building I couldn’t tell what part was myth and what part was Mina. There was a significant amount of research that went into this book, and it shows. Not only was there a lot that went into the mythology, but into the class system of feudal Japan in the 1600s and historical events related to the world spice trade and the politics surrounding it. But more than the facts, was that Mina expressed how each character felt about their lot in life in a way that felt natural.

The mythological integration was brilliant. I can’t get into details without risking spoilers, but the way that Mina portrayed different spirits and deities that were native to Japan was at times captivating. Living in the Western part of the world, I’m not often exposed to much of the folklore that was included, so it was refreshing to see new types of spirits integrated I had yet to see.

Last, but probably the most important facet of this novel, is the characterization. What it comes down to is Fated is a book about relationships. The action, the mythos, the research, the world, the plot twists, all of it is wrapping. This is a book about four people navigating the complicated, up and down, terrible, wonderful, heartbreaking, uplifting parts of life and love that threaten to break us and put us back together again. They’re flawed, nuanced, and they evolve through time—exactly as they should. They were individual and distinctive, their backgrounds and voices all set apart. These characters got into my head, and I loved them for it. 

(Disclosure: I was provided an Advance Reader Copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.)

Trigger Warnings: Explicit Sexual Content (including BDSM), Graphic Violence, Mentions of Miscarriage

Book Review: Not Quite Out

William is fine with being just friends for the rest of forever.
Well, not quite.

Not Quite Out by Louise Willingham is a slow-burn contemporary romance with tangible, idiosyncratic characters and messy, complex relationships that tackles real-world issues and questions the norms we have established around our culture of coming out. It’s a sophisticated and complicated novel with characters that are not always likeable and situations that have an uncomfortable resonance, but speaks to our potential to form relationships that traverse the chasms that split between us.

William isn’t straight, but a quiet nervousness and need for privacy makes the words ‘I’m bisexual’ feel like a proclamation of intent, where he’d rather simply finish his coursework.

When he meets Daniel, he’s charmed by his facade but falls for the man beneath. Dan has demons of his own, ones that make Will realize the inherent unimportance of his own internal struggle. But as their friendship blooms, it becomes more and more apparent that the closet Will has made his home is bursting at the seams.

Audience

Be very aware of the trigger warnings in this book. The author is very open about the triggers, and they are made available on the description page before purchase. As always, I also have listed the triggers I spotted at the end of this review, so please check before picking up this book that there isn’t a trigger that can cause you an issue.

If you’re looking for an easy, fluffy, feel-good read this is not the book for you. This is categorized as contemporary romance, but it goes much deeper than a book simply about the development of a romantic relationship. It doesn’t fit into a box as cleanly, which I always find refreshing. 

If you’re someone who yearns to read books that make you think deeper about our actions and how we form and keep relationships, this is well worth a look. There are real-world issues and messy relationships throughout the novel, and the characters make significant missteps that make them often unlikeable. Yet, that is what I loved about the book. It was real.

I would even go so far as to say if you’re a fan of literary fiction and are thinking of dipping your toes into genre fiction, this could be a place to start. This feels like a contemporary romance and literary fiction hybrid in some ways. It doesn’t have the lyrically heavy prose of some literary fiction, but it does focus on complex themes and messages. 

What I Liked 

The writing flows and carries the reader along with it, the prose quirky but easy to read. I enjoyed the first-person point of view, giving us up-close and personal insights into Will’s intentions and thought processes. I don’t think the book would have worked as well in third-person; it felt necessary with Will’s anxiety for us to get the reasoning and thoughts behind some of his actions and choices.

I should note, one of the most interesting perspectives that Willingham brings up in this novel is about the need for those around us to be knowledgeable to the point of intrusiveness about aspects of our lives. There’s an undercurrent of the theme of letting people come to their own understandings and share in their own time, or not at all, which is definitely a stance that I haven’t seen much in modern fiction. I think Willingham is trying to say that in our need to tell others that they can share anything with us, we often imply we need to share everything, which is a very different meaning.

The characters in Not Quite Out are flawed, which I think is what makes them believable. William, our protagonist, is young, naive, anxious, wants to help to a sometimes unhealthy degree, and is still coming to terms that he’s not entirely straight. The relationships he forms are not perfect, and often devolve into disasters that he then has to work through re-building. Sounds a lot like real life, doesn’t it?

Trigger Warnings

PTSD, Drug Abuse, Domestic Violence, Abortion, Self-Harm

(Not Quite Out is a novel with a lot to say, and I was excited to be sent an ARC in exchange for an honest review.)

Book Review: Under New Suns

After generations of warfare against the ominous Swarm, the United Planetary Alliance settles on a desperate gambit—send a squad of Marines to steal one of the Swarm’s bio-organic battleships. However, it turns out the ship isn’t merely alive but fully sentient… and it has a mission of its own. 

Under New Suns (Tales From the Year Between Book 2) is an anthology written and illustrated by over twenty authors and illustrators, detailing an epic space opera told in the form of star maps, illustrations, comics, poetry, flash fiction, short stories, verse, and even a stage play. The galaxy, dimension, and reality-bending twists and turns caught me off guard in every segment of the story.

We start off with some beautifully detailed star maps by Aaron Hockett to orient us to the surroundings our heroes encounter and a summarized explanation of the mission. This swiftly changes to comic panels (also by Hockett) that detail the beginning of the story. The desperate plan: steal a Swarm ship. But right off the bat, we know not all will go according to plan as our heroes soon discover the ship is capable of more than it seems.

From there, it’s all hands on deck, as we’re introduced to the substantial crew, then we’re treated to a swirling poem to set the mood by Phebe Yawson, Spinning in Space

Then, the strangeness begins.

Audience

I’ll put this up top so there’s no question: if you like space operas, you’ll have fun with this anthology. At the end of the day, it was an entertaining read that would be best read a few stories at a time, so you never quite lose traction or the plotline. 

Keep in mind, though each story is written by a separate author, there is a coherent thread throughout. Although the chronology of the stories does jump around, they are meant to be read in sequence. I wouldn’t recommend moving around, or an already cerebral story may become impossible to parse.

Even if you’re not already a space-opera aficionado, general sci-fi and speculative fiction fans will get a kick out of this as well, and part of this is because of the diversity of content. What makes Under New Suns stand out as a space-opera is it draws on a lot of different aspects of science fiction, not just space travel. It’s science fiction with an emphasis on its root: science. 

There’s one story in particular that focuses on oceanography, exploring what the oceans of an alien planet might look like, but through the lens of the knowledge of Earth’s oceans. Another later story focuses on chemistry. We have stories that touch on meteorology, genomics, anthropology, on and on.

This may feel like it should be expected, but so many space operas get so inundated in engineering and astrophysics they forget that other sciences should become just as involved. This is a testament to what happens when you have multiple voices coming to the table with diverse ideas.

What I Liked

As always don’t forget to check the Trigger Warnings at the bottom of the page if you have concerns.

I already talked a little bit about the diversity of scientific methodologies being something I enjoyed in Under New Suns. On the same wavelength, I also loved the diversity of writing styles and formats. There’s anything from star maps to comic illustrations, from flash fiction to stage plays. More specific than that, there are stories that are very character-driven and intimate, and then those that are very action-packed and plot-driven. Each author has their own voice, and it gives something different to the over-arching story.

And speaking of the plot itself, it was at times entertaining, then intellectual, and suddenly emotional. By the end, there were so many different threads going so many different directions it became a little difficult to pick through them all, but I can’t help but think that some of the complexity was on purpose for reasons I won’t get into (sorry, spoilers!)

I will end my review with a little bit of enticement for those of you who are already salivating at the idea of reading Under New Suns. The next Tales from The Years Between Anthology? Pirates. I’m there.

Trigger Warnings

Sexual Situations, Drug Use, Violence

Book Review: The Sigil

Lake’s brother Devlin was murdered right in front of him. Simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time…Or was he?

The Sigil by Shakeil Kanish and Larissa Mandeville is the first part of a dark urban fantasy duology with a gay protagonist, that tackles questions such as the morality of segregation of societies, the effect of the cult of excellence on our youth, and how the bonds of found family can overcome any obstacle. 

And it does it all with nether-monsters, a magical academy, and a main character who walks in slow-mo.

As far as Lake is concerned, there’s nothing special about him. Denied from every college he applied to, he’s taken his role as an average gay man in stride, despite having an adopted brother that excels at everything he tries. He’s not happy with his lot in life, but he’s not going to fight it either. Fighting isn’t the kind of thing Lake is good at, after all.

Everything changes when Dev is murdered in front of his eyes. Convinced that Dev somehow knew of his impending death, Lake investigates his brother’s murder, only to stumble on more than he could ever imagined.

Magic is real.

And he’ll do anything to be a part of that world.

Audience

As always, beware the trigger warnings. You’ll find them at the bottom of the review if you have concerns about whether this is the right book for you.

The first thing you need to be aware of about The Sigil is this book is dark. Not needlessly so—it’s certainly not akin to a slasher film. Every bit of violence and gore has a purpose, and the authors take care that there is relief to the tension so it’s not one giant emo moment. It’s not spooky, nor is it gore-fest. 

This reads more like a gothic horror than anything, where the darkness is a feeling of being unsettled, that things may not necessarily all turn out in the end. It’s interesting to have some of the same tension and emotion of a classic gothic horror in an urban fantasy story that is very modern and diverse. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition, especially when you add in that there are also more humorous moments. It leaves a taste that is at once familiar and unique, harking back to different traditions but combining them in a way that lends itself to the diverse ensemble cast.

Keeping that in mind, if you are one of those readers who need a happy ending, this may not be the book for you. It’s a great novel that I really enjoyed personally, but it is dark, and the ending reflects that.

If the possibility of a not-so-happy-ending doesn’t deter you, and the thrill of a chill down your spine piques your interest, I’d like to add there’s also magic, monsters, average heroes, friendly demon possession, gay pining, and a whole lot of snark. What’s not to love?

What I Liked

The Sigil has a decently-sized cast of characters, with two point of view characters, Nova and Lake. I much preferred the chapters where we were brought along Lake’s journey, as I found that Nova rubbed me the wrong way on a personal level. But even as I didn’t love her as a person, I could see the strength of her characterization.

That’s one of the hallmarks of this novel—unique characters with autonomy. Kanish and Mandeville created a unique group that each have their own idiosyncrasies and backgrounds that come to life on the page. I especially liked the backgrounds and characters of Stone and Knox, along with Lake of course. 

The truest indication that I’m interested in a book is when I’m tempted to skim forward to see what happens further into the book, not out of boredom, but because the tension is palpable enough that I get anxious. This isn’t something that happens to me often, as I’m usually able to compartmentalize, but I found myself having the urge many times. This book just got under my skin.

The plot had a lot of twists and turns, and though I did have an inkling as to the puppeteer behind the mayhem, I didn’t nearly have the understanding of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ that came to pass by the end of the book. I also never would have guessed some aspects of the ending, and I have to mention—this left me with one of the strongest ‘book hangovers’ I’ve ever experienced. I was actually distraught, because Kanish and Mandeville had gotten under my skin, and made me really care about these characters. I became invested in their stories, and the end result left me reeling.

Trigger Warnings

Death, Grief/Loss, Graphic Violence, Gore

Book Review: Kana the Stray

The fate of a world that is not her home rests upon the shoulders of Kana Kobayashi, the last human.

Kana the Stray by CC Luckey is a fantasy and science fiction novel following Kana Kobayashi as she tries to navigate her way through a world dominated by talking animals known as the Kingdom in order to find her way home. On her journey she transforms from a snarky, aimless young woman who’s given up hope to an inspirational leader with everything to lose from the dwellers of the mysterious Badlands—but will she bring on her own downfall?

Kana Kobayashi is a nobody. A vagabond, homeless, unwanted, living on the streets of Chicago with the cold of winter afoot. Fleeing a suffocating and emotionally abusive family, she takes her chances and follows the only route left open to her: taking experimental drugs for a pharmaceutical company for food money.

When she goes for her next dose, the whole world changes. Literally. Now in a world where animals talk and humans are extinct, she must discover where humanity went wrong, and how to get back to her own world—and if she even wants to.

CC Luckey’s Kana the Stray is like Brian Jacques meets Isaac Asimov, in a novel where animals show more humanity than humans… and that’s not always a good thing.

Audience
When you mix fantasy and science fiction, there’s this wobbly existence where booksellers, agents, and publishers just don’t know where to put you. That’s because people love to be able to categorize, label, and otherwise put things in boxes. We have container stores after all—we do love our boxes.

That makes the finer points of ‘audience’ for Kana the Stray a little difficult. It has significant elements of sword and sorcery, complete with epic battles, betrayals, and royalty. And yet there is also a very important science fiction element to the story as well (which I will not spoil, so you’ll get nothing more out of me!) You can make an argument for speculative fiction of course, but even that label goes in and out of use.

Personally I love when the fantasy and science fiction elements become so intertwined they’re like a finely knitted sweater. You can see the patterns, but unless you look really close, the individual stitches run together. That’s how well Kana works. Suffice to say, no elements of the story (fantasy, science fiction or otherwise), stand out as unnatural or as not well integrated.

What I Liked
I think what struck me first and foremost about Kana is that the prose was flawless. Detailed, but unhindered. Emotional, but not dawdling. The pacing was spot on throughout the book, setting the tension and giving me chances to breathe before heart-thumping action scenes. It was at a level that I don’t usually see even in a lot of traditionally published books, let alone indie books (Not to say that indie books are inherently lesser, only that indie authors don’t often have the funds to hire multiple editors for each of their books to really polish the prose.)

I also loved how much the characters grew throughout the story. If I’m honest, I struggled with Kana as a character in the beginning. I disliked her personality, so if on your initial read you have the same reaction as me take heart. Luckey has a knack for showing character growth, not just of her main character but of much of the main cast (which is quite the ensemble of personalities in and of itself.) I loved how Kana grew into her role as an ambassador, how she still kept her snark and distrust of authority while also acquiescing to the needs of her role when it really mattered. Most importantly, I loved how she learned how to form bonds and relationships with others, having not experienced a healthy family life or any real friendships as an adult.

One of the other enjoyable qualities of this book is more about the experience itself. I’m someone with chronic pain who suffers with constant physical issues that make even the seemingly low-stress activity of reading difficult at times. Yet, this book had me so engrossed that I ignored all of my normal physical warning signs and read myself near into a flare up because I didn’t register the pain through my excitement.

For me that is a hallmark of a good fiction book: one that can let you forget your lot on Earth just for a little while, and become invested in the lives or the characters in the story, so much so that all your worries and stressors fall away into nothing.

Although Kana certainly had stressors of her own. Part of what made this book so engrossing is that when it hit its stride, it was incredibly exciting. It is an action-packed sci-fi with the added mystery of how Kana ends up in the Kingdoms in the first place. The twists and turns had me guessing, while the battles, the betrayals, different forces coming in and out of play and the emotional growth of the main characters all happen in fluid motions, a well-oiled machine of a book that honestly caught me by surprise.

I thought I had an idea of what Kana the Stray would be like, what it would be about; and while the book I thought I was going to have read would have been good, it would have been done before. Kana is original, strange, and unapologetic.

Trigger Warnings
Graphic Violence

Book Review: Stay

There are rules in romance books. Readers who are new to romance quickly learn that based on your genre, sub-genre, and trope, there are things that Should or Should Not Happen in a book, and to deviate from that leaves readers confused or even angry.

In their book Stay, Ash Knight nods to the tropes, the guidelines, and the ‘must-have’s’ of a hurt/comfort story. But she does it in a way that is unique and true to life without losing the little pieces of authenticity and hard-won lessons that can often be missing in renditions of weathered romance tales.

Stay is a heartwarming gay romance featuring a main character on the autistic spectrum, giving light to two minorities that don’t often fit into the mainstream, let alone together. More than that, it’s a beautiful example of what a deep, communicative relationship can be between two very different people, even after the experience of severe trauma.

Our story begins with Madden living a life of routine and normalcy as an ER nurse, a strong juxtaposition to the life of Joe, homeless and making his bed behind a gym. A storm sets the two on the path to each other thanks to the kindness of Lulu, the owner of a local cafe, and we begin our journey towards Joe and Madden finding themselves in each other.

The Good:

One of the most interesting things I found about Stay is that it delves deep into the thought process and relationship of someone on the autistic spectrum. Even within the book it’s made clear that there’s no one experience of autism, and that Joe’s experience isn’t meant to be the Bible of how people on the spectrum live or behave. It was nice though to see the different ways Joe looks at things explained on the page, and it made me think a lot about my own experience with friends or students I’ve known on the spectrum.

It’s also nice to see another gay romance where the relationship is normalized. There is some mention of past coming out, but the story itself is not about coming out as gay. The people around the characters don’t bat an eye at the same-sex part of their relationship, and it never becomes an issue. It was refreshing.

Should You Read It:

As always, please be aware of any Trigger Warnings that may be relevant to you. I’ve included a list at the bottom of the review. There are some pretty significant ones in the novel, so please take caution if you have concerns.

In a nutshell—if you like gay romance, Stay is a book you’ll want to add to your To Be Read pile. It has all the hallmarks of a good gay romance, but still managed to go above and beyond the genre-typical fare. There is a reason why this book was a Goodreads Member Choice Awards Nominee in the Debut Author category. Ash Knight knows how to balance tension and comfort for a read that is hard to put down, and you’ll be sad to see it end.

If you aren’t someone who’s delved into the gay romance genre, this is a book for people who enjoy reading stories of redemption through love and companionship, of two people becoming better for their relationship. It’s a romance in the truest sense of the word, not just as a vehicle for a physical relationship.

Trigger Warnings: Sexual Assault, Past Rape, Homelessness, Violence, Sexual Situations

Book Review: Shelta’s Songbook

Shelta’s Songbook by Leia Talon is a whimsical introduction to the Roots and Stars series of novels coming out in 2021. It’s comprised of short stories, love letters and songs, alongside illustrations (paperback version) all carefully knitted together into a constellation that spans the lifetimes of Shelta Raine, the main character in the story who travels through time.

On its own, Shelta’s Songbook weaves a web of disparate moments that need not be the purview of a time traveler to have impact. Love, loss, self-care, and self-doubt are all tackled at different moments, and it all connects in a deep, human way. 

The Good

What’s interesting about Shelta’s Songbook is that while It suits well as an introduction to a love story that promises to span time and immortality, it can also stand alone on it’s own merits as a book of poetry. Taken out of context from the canon of the series of romance novels, it says enough on it’s own that it need not be seen as just a companion piece.

I reviewed the paperback version, so my comments on the illustrations are going to be based on that. I don’t believe the e-book version has nearly as much visual content, so fair warning that if you want the full experience, I highly recommend investing in the paperback version. Believe me, you’ll be glad you did. 

Coming from an illustration background, I’m pretty critical about consistency of illustrations and their necessity. Sometimes poetry books include illustrations for the sake of it—I didn’t get that feeling from Shelta’s Songbook. They were all related to the content, well-executed on a technical level, and downright gorgeous. They are all black and white line illustrations, filled with swirls, outlines and silhouettes that are airy and bright alongside the text. It was a perfect combination.

Should You Read It

There are two audiences that I think would be a perfect fit for this book. First, if you plan on reading any of the Roots and Stars series, then absolutely this is a perfect addition and precursor to the stories. As far as if you should read Roots and Stars: If you’re a fan of fantasy elements, love stories that span time and unthinkable odds, and whimsical writing, then the series is something that would be up your alley.

Secondly, if you’re a fan of poetry anthologies that are whimsical with a hint of the fantastical, but above all that touch the parts of us that are so inherently human—this is a paperback that you would do well to have on your shelf.

Trigger Warnings None