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

Book Review: Hark

Hark by John R Gordon is a profound and vibrant foray into America’s shared dark past, told from the perspective of a teenage, interracial gay couple as they grapple with the complexities of racism in their dying Southern town.

Cleve is toying with a life of criminality when a last minute change of heart puts him at the wrong place at the wrong time. Roe wants to take a stand in a dying town built on the blood and tears of his enslaved ancestors. When the wrong time becomes the right place, something kindles between them. 

And then, there is Hark. A supernatural vagabond, or dangerous conman?

When the three meet, a town’s dark history proves not to be so far removed, and the two lovers must learn to face the scars of history in front of them.

The Good

Wow. Simply, wow

The first quarter of this book reads like a combination of a retelling of events and a history of the town and it’s occupants. I found the way Gordon weaved in the narrative with the history unique, with subtle hints to future happenings.

But no word is wasted. You’ll need every bit of detail to understand the complexity of what is about to happen. The story of Cleve, Hark and Roe takes a supernatural twist I hadn’t expected about halfway through, even knowing that there would be more fantastical elements in the story. There is nothing in Hark that is predictable, and I found Gordon’s technique refreshing because of this.

The town is described so vividly that I could practically smell the lemons on the trees in Roe’s neighborhood and the decaying leaves in the woods. The picture he paints with words is so full and vibrant that you can’t help but feel like you’re there—even at the times you wish you weren’t.

Most important of all: Hark had one of the most profound endings of any book I have read. Not just this year—ever. I am still reeling over how perfect and deeply important the events are, and how much they mean regarding our shared histories.

Should You Read It?

(As always, if you’re concerned about triggers, check the Trigger Warnings at the bottom of the review.)

Should you read Hark by John R. Gordon?

Yes.

(I was tempted to leave this section at that, because I think this is a book that unilaterally needs to be read, but for sake of conversation, let’s break it down..)

I’m a white, Midwestern American who’s also lived in Southern and Western states at different times of my adult life. I may not have lived every culture America has to offer, but I’ve seen enough to know that the conversations and realities that Gordon illuminates in Hark need to be highlighted and faced.

Racism isn’t a reality that I live. I don’t understand the intricacies or depths of what it means to be persecuted for being black in America (and other countries,) and no matter how much I learn, I never will. At the same time, if I purport to be anti-racist, I still need to try.

When I picked up Hark, I had a feeling that some things were going to click for me, but I had no idea how much. Gordon does a lot of work bridging that gap between cultures, and I thank him for his dedication to this project. Reading this book truly made me think deeply on racism in ways I haven’t had to before, and will continue to make me think (and learn) for a long time to come.

The beauty of Hark is that even though Gordon deals with heavy issues, the progression of thought feels completely natural. In the love forming between Cleve and Roe, we see how they think about the reactions of each others’ families and neighbors, considering how each other interprets their actions and words, and even about the perception of their respective homes.

That doesn’t even go into the nuances of homophobia in both Cleve and Roe’s cultures, or how Gordon tackles classism. His approach is very honest and open, not missing any beats, leaving the prose feeling raw and unfiltered.

Just like Roe is the seed that opens Cleve’s eyes to the experience of being black in America, I feel that Hark can be what opens the eyes of many others as to our shared histories and how the roots of yesterday bear the fruit of today.

Not only do I think most of us should read this, I think a lot of us need to read this book.

 

Trigger Warnings: Racism, Homophobia, Murder (Including Lynching), Drug Addiction, Disordered Eating, Fatphobia

(I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Book Review: Tom Woolberson and the School for Watchers

“He assumed the unthinkable had happened – that he had died (unfortunately… he was right.)”

Tom Woolberson and the School for Watchers by K.J. Brookes is a supernatural fantasy series that will charm you with its world and characters, enrich your day with its knowledge and wonder, and shock you with the true-to-life darkness that exists within us all.

When Tom Woolberson awakens standing in a strange marshland with no recollection of how he got there, the reality of his own death wasn’t the first thing that crossed his mind as an explanation. Having previously been enraptured by a solo gaming session in his bedroom on his Xbox, the idea of a passenger plane crashing into his home and instantly cutting his time on Earth short hadn’t been on his list of concerns.

But the truth of his own death is revealed to him, along with his destiny at St. Michael’s School for Watchers. After befriending the wardrobe-eccentric Mary and care-free Finn, he quickly learns that the historic teachers and angelic heads of houses may yet hide mysteries that even the library of St. Michaels’ won’t easily reveal.

The Good:

Brookes does a great job of doing some hard worldbuilding in the prose, describing the school and its surroundings in detail without getting bogged down with unnecessary background information at inopportune moments. It’s a careful balance that he navigates like a seasoned tightrope acrobat, giving us enough to wet our palette and feel like we’re experiencing the world first-hand, but not so much that a reader would be tempted to skim or skip passages.

There’s clearly been research done behind the scenes on Christian lore, but it doesn’t come across as a lecture or a sermon. There’s nothing presented that doesn’t have a purpose in the story. Brookes was able to trim the fat from every reference down to its bare necessities—paramount in any book that references this many historical and literary aspects. Too often authors can become inundated in the minutia of history and neglect the pacing needs of a book.

I very much enjoyed the cameos from historical figures, such as Newton, Wilde, and others (who I won’t spoil for you, you’ll just have to read for yourself!) There are tidbits on science, psychology, and even music and art history sprinkled throughout the book. It was a pleasure just to experience one author’s interpretation of what it would be like to meet these giants of history.

I also found it refreshing that Brookes approaches the big question of life after death in the context of just one religion without it seeming preachy or universal. Though it does make use of very specific lore, it doesn’t necessitate that the lore be followed to exact measure for a positive outcome. It feels like evil has less to do with the lore of Christianity, and more to do with basic human morality. There’s denouncement of evils such as pride and envy, stealing and murder, but not a condemnation of things like homosexuality (case in point: Wilde made it into Heaven.) This may yet change in future books, but I found it an interesting approach so far.

Should You Read It:

As always, please review the Trigger Warnings below if you have concerns on whether this book would be right for you.

Tom Woolberson and the School for Watchers is a hard book to categorize. It doesn’t quite fit in the typical mold of magical boarding school fiction, nor does it fit in the genre of paranormal or supernatural fantasy. In some ways it feels like it is to Christianity what the Percy Jackson series is to Greek Mythology—an integration of the lore into modern culture—but the equivalency isn’t quite right there either.

It’s a bit of an odd one, and I think the right reader will see that as a highlight rather than a detriment. It has religious context and is based on painstaking research, but I wouldn’t categorize it as a religious book. In truth, some more fundamentalist Christians or Catholics may dislike it, because while the lore is researched it’s approached as malleable, taking liberties to fit it within the context of the story (as all stories do in some way.) But I think others may yet see it as a way to explore their faith in a different light, and enjoy the excitement and mystery of the book itself.

Ultimately, the ideal audience would be those who have a love for learning and an open mind. It’s not meant to be read as a manual for spiritual practice, but as an enjoyable, fantastical mystery that just happens to take place in the context of a religion that is often misrepresented. It’s a new take on old stories, and I’m interested to see where Brookes takes Tom Woolberson next.

Spark Level: I rated Tom Woolberson and the School for Watchers as spark level Torch. It serves as a reminder that we all carry within us the potential for darkness and sin, and the light to shatter the emptiness around us.

Trigger Warnings: Murder and torture.

(Disclaimer: I received an Advanced Reader Copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Book Review: Lesser Known Monsters

“Being the chosen one isn’t always a good thing.”

Stories of heroes and monsters have been passed down since we were able to make fires to share stories around. They enthrall us in their grandeur, shock us with their intensity, terrorize us with the horror that lurks within the shadows. But ultimately, the heroic protagonist, through virtue of their strength and ingenuity, arises victorious.

This is not one of those stories.

Lesser Known Monsters by Rory Michaelson is a dark, queer fantasy debut that balances an intriguing plot, striking and diverse characters, and a whirlwind gay romance all on the backs of a protagonist that is endearingly… average.

Oscar Turndale knows what it’s like to be left behind. Abandoned by his parents at a young age, he immediately empathizes when a young girl is brought into his ward at the hospital with severe injuries and no parental figure in sight. When the girl points to a fellow colleague and not-quite-ex-boyfriend as the culprit, Oscar and his friends Zara and Marcus quickly find themselves in over their heads when their search turns to the supernatural.

The Good:

What really kept me on the edge of my seat was that I genuinely cared about the characters. The problem with a lot of plot-driven stories is that the characters are often underdeveloped, cardboard cutouts that the writer knows does well to serve a certain purpose. They’re tried and true caricatures of real people, created to fulfill a need. This is partially why a lot of authors rely on stereotypes—because they know how the audience will react to those stereotypes.

Michaelson’s characters were unique. They were vivid, nuanced, driven by their own wants and needs. They peeled themselves off the page and became real in my mind, not in spite of their uniqueness but because of it. They were diverse, and fully embraced that diversity.

The plot itself was intriguing. I loved the idea of an ‘average’ hero, one who makes mistakes with very real consequences and relies on the strength of their found family to get them through. The format was very well crafted, with monster profiles and interludes that all intertwined into a narrative that was intelligent while still relying on the inherent fantastical elements.

Should You Read It?:

As always, please consider the Trigger Warnings in the section below if you have any triggers that may be a concern when reading.

We talk a lot about Own Voices in the writing community—that is, books written by the minority that is represented within the book. This particular novel is considered Own Voices in regards to queer representation, and it shows. There’s just about every letter in LGBTQ represented, and not in passing either; not only are the identities present, but they thrive. You can often tell when a character is put in a story where their identity becomes the character, but Oscar, Zara and Marcus are all fully formed in their own right. If you’re looking for a supernatural or modern fantasy book with queer representation, Lesser Known Monsters would be a fantastic pick.

And at the end of the day, off all the books I’ve read for my book reviews, this has been one of the most fun. Even though there was tension, mystery, and heartbreak, it didn’t overwhelm and it wasn’t overdone. I realize that’s not the most measurable or explainable of merits, but I simply enjoyed reading it. 

Trigger Warnings: Genre Consistent Gore, Implied Sexual Situations

Book Review: Ensoulment

Every being is infused with a soul upon their creation, but what would happen if a soul was split?”

Ensoulment by Nick Askew is a genre-bending debut that defies traditional plot tropes and formats, pulling no punches as it blurs the lines between fantasy and reality.

The story begins innocuous enough, with the LA bound Andrew in a relationship with a man he’s not quite sure he loves. At his boyfriend’s debut as a photographer in the high society art scene, an encounter with a mysterious, grinning man that leaves him feeling cold heralds a fantastical journey, one that begins with his death as his boyfriend takes a knee to propose. When he wakes up, he has no memory of his past, and quickly learns that all is not well in the world he has stumbled into.

What follows is a topsy-turvy tale in multiple points of view that spans different genres, timelines and worlds, leaving the reader constantly questioning what’s real along with Andrew and the other main characters. Yet the novel doesn’t feel disjointed or forced despite its lofty goals, making this one of the best executed fantasy and speculative fiction debuts I’ve encountered so far.

The Good

I’m going to be upfront. This book was not at all what I expected, and I mean that in the best possible way. I expected a novel where the main character from our world was whisked away to a world of knights, princesses, and dragons, with LGBT characters for my queer little heart as the cherry on top. 

This book took my expectations out back and smashed it like the printer in Office Space. Ensoulment is as much a science fiction and horror story as it is fantasy, bending into the different genres like a slinky down a stairwell. 

For one, Askew doesn’t shy away from period-appropriate violence and creepy characters that will most likely appear in my nightmares. Horror influences? Check. The fantasy elements are easy to spot, including the ‘save the princess’ plot, the familiarity much needed in the complex twists and turns. The science-fiction elements are sparing at first, like sprinkles on a cupcake, but further into the book, they become more prevalent. Instead of seeming like disparate pieces glued together, Askew pulls off a genre-bending book that made every twist feel like it belonged as a piece of the whole.

The plot is a complicated web rather than a straight line, and we travel through it in bits and pieces. The prose is unencumbered yet vivid, the characters twisted but human (mostly.) The only criticism I have is that the ending was quite abrupt, but considering the length of the novel, as it stands, I can’t imagine a better place to end it within the timeline. Fortunately, the sequel is coming up soon, which means readers won’t have long to wait.

Should You Read It?

As always, please observe the Trigger Warnings at the bottom of the page before reading.

If you’re a fan of books that fit the mold and rely on tried and true plots and characters… this is not your book. 

This is the book for the readers among us who have been there, read that, and want more from their fiction. Fans of speculative fiction will be over the moon to have a book by a new up and coming author to sink their teeth into. If you like being surprised (both in delight and in horror) this book delivers. I won’t give too much away because the twists are that prevalent, but suffice to say, they were never a let down.

As I mentioned before, the ending is somewhat abrupt, so if you’re the type of person who isn’t a fan of cliffhangers, it might be worth waiting for the next book—or even the full trilogy—to be released. It sounds like Askew will be releasing the last of the series within the near future, so you won’t have long to wait.

Spark Level

I rated Ensoulment as spark level Inferno. It’s a book where you never know where the next surprise will come knocking; the only certainty is that it’s going to make you burn.

Trigger Warnings: Torture, Period Typical Violence

Book Review: Grief and Self-Care

When a loved one is taken from us, It can feel like the world has crumbled to dust. Grief and Self-Care doesn’t try to make sense of the rubble; it keeps you breathing until the dust settles to daylight.

Grief and Self-Care by Kathleen Sullivan is a succinct and insightful guide for how to effectively take care of your needs in the midst of grief, whether it be grief from the loss of a loved one, a divorce, onset of disability, or other debilitating change. During a pandemic that has cost us over 960 thousand lives worldwide, there has never been a more appropriate time for a book like Sullivan has created.

The most debilitating emotional pain we will ever face as human beings is the loss of someone we cherish. The first time you lose someone that close to you, especially if you’re young and those around you have yet to suffer any similar loss, it can feel like you’re walking blindly through a labyrinth. While Sullivan’s book doesn’t aim to tackle all aspects of grief, what it does is make one particular aspect clear and concise: self-care

In this book Sullivan covers self-care techniques like writing, hobbies, non-competitive exercise, professional help, and even a section for loved ones on what not to say to someone who’s grieving.  Options are laid out in chapters to try, each with an explanation, examples from personal experience, and references to outside resources should you like to learn more.

I found Sullivan’s writing to be very accessible, which is paramount when it comes to a book that may be read in a time of crisis. I appreciated that Sullivan highlights quotes from different books from other accredited authors on grief, which can be found in the References section, giving even more credence to the techniques.

The Good

As you can read more about in our interview, Sullivan’s goal is to not overwhelm the reader, which I find to be a fantastic strategy. While for myself I soaked up books like a sponge a few months after my loss, when my grief first began I didn’t have the concentration for reading long form. This is a fairly common response, and one reason why I’m fascinated to see Sullivan’s future works as they tackle other aspects of grief.

I also think the longevity of these techniques is important. While techniques for stopping panic attacks and fighting through sleepless nights may have been helpful (and perhaps subjects for future publications) the techniques outlined in the chapters can instead become habitual. They’re long-form self-care, not just short-term. Grief often comes in waves that the griever can’t predict; having set routines means getting through the hard days through sheer force of established habits rather than drowning in the debris.

Most of all, there’s a balance of authority and authenticity in this book that is often missing from grief related publications. Half the time the grief books I’ve read are from professionals that can be too clinical for many readers. The other half the time they’re memoirs from those affected from a heavy loss, and the authority of their words just isn’t present. 

Sullivan is a crisis counselor at The Crisis Text Line, works, with a non-profit for suicide prevention and awareness, and is pursuing her masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She has the authority, and yet she comes across as quite down-to-earth and empathetic. She’s also dealt with enough grief personally that I get the feeling that even more than a professional, she’s first someone who’s been there and wants to help.

Should You Read It?

If you or someone you love is going through a loss, then I give you a resounding ‘yes.’ In fact, I have already gifted it to a friend of mine in my own grief group that is at a stage of their journey where they needed to re-approach their self-care routine. This is a book where I put my money where my mouth is.

The thing with grief and loss is that no one wants to deal with it. It’s painful. It’s challenging. This isn’t a book I ever want to have to suggest to anyone because it means they’re suffering. But if you’re in that space and you’re drowning, this book can be a lifeline. Not for everyone—there is certainly a matter of taste and timing with grief books as I’ve experienced myself. But when you’re approaching climbing a mountain every tool is worth a chance.

The one caveat I have to this book that I would feel remiss if I did not mention, is that Sullivan and I disagree on the merits of medication (to read about her views on medication, see our interview.) Though certainly not all people going through a loss should rely on medication, I think in certain cases there are benefits to medication prescribed by a Psychiatrist. This is especially true if the patient is a danger to themselves or others, or is dealing with unmanageable insomnia. I’ve seen medication do wonders for some, and I’ve seen it do nothing for others. It depends fully on the individual, and how their own grief manifests.

Spark Level

I rated Grief and Self-Care as spark level Torch. It’s an informative self-care book that grievers can carry like a guiding light through the labyrinth of loss to help keep them moving forward when all else is veiled in darkness.

Trigger Warnings: Death and loss.

Book Review: Keeping Creed

Bent on revenge and uncaring if he lives or dies, Creed begins to learn that home is more than a place. It’s what you protect.

Keeping Creed by Shaun Holt is a quirky military romance novel centering around Samuel Creed and Tessa Holt, whose teenage years were moulded by tragedy. Finding their way to each other gives Tessa the prince she never knew she wanted, and Creed the reason he needs to always return home.

When the events of 9/11 rob Creed of his older brother and Tessa of her much-loved uncle, their worlds are shattered into a world of grief. Tessa turns to literature and escape, while Creed turns to the military and revenge. A whirlwind of basic training and three tours in Afghanistan later finds Creed jaded and Tessa working at a library in Washington D.C., where the two meet through Creed’s niece, Rose.

Their romance lights like a match. But Creed’s newest job working at a counter-terrorism agency won’t let him forget the innocent lives yet being lost to the minds and actions of terrible men. When his work and love life collide, Creed has to make a choice: revenge for the brother he loved, or the new life he’s built?

The Good:

There are two main points of view in the novel, Creed and Tessa. They were both well done, but I especially enjoyed the Jane Austen quotes in the beginning of Tessa’s chapters as they related to the subject of each chapter. It reflected her love for literature and added a deeper connection to the character.

The prose is sharp, detailed. Many times I was surprised at how in-depth and precise the descriptions were, making the reader really feel like they were in the presence of the characters standing in that room or in that place. The dialogue is witty and natural, especially the commentary between Creed and Rose. I really enjoyed their interactions throughout the novel, they felt the most genuine and often heartwarming.

There are several points in the novel where the prose breaks the fourth wall- that is, interacts with the reader in some way. I thought this was an interesting take, and brought forward the idea that this novel was meant to be fun and light despite some of it’s heavy leanings when it comes to revenge and war.

Lastly, while the interaction with Sawyer’s spirit caught me off guard at first, I enjoyed those scenes and thought they added a lot to the story. It again pushed forward that this novel was meant to be taken with a sense of lightness, even with it’s heavy subjects. His interactions with the world as a spirit were sometimes comedic, other times beautiful, and the novel wouldn’t have been the same without them.

Should You Read It:

First things first, if you’re concerned about triggers, check the Trigger Warnings section at the bottom of the article to see if there are any that may prevent you from enjoying this book

The military romance genre is a niche market, but Keeping Creed would appeal to a wider range of audiences than would be expected. It felt like it could be categorized in either romance or general fiction without issue, as while the romance was key, it was not the sole focus of the story. A lot of attention is spent on how Creed is meant to come to terms with and work through the loss of his brother through his military career.

This book is a hard one to explain in that it’s light, but heavy. Entertaining, but wise. With the exception of early on during the 9/11 attacks, there were few areas that felt heavy on my soul despite some darker subjects, and I can’t quite understand how Holt managed to do it. Because of this, I would caution to be prepared with some tissues at the beginning, but after that it’s a beautiful, funny, whimsical, snarky, wild ride that I’m glad to have been on.

Spark Level:

I rated Keeping Creed as spark level Torch; a deep read that’s light at heart, this military romance reminded me that we carry home with us in the memories and dreams of the ones we love.

Trigger Warnings: Mentions of rape and torture; Explicit violence and sexuality; Depictions of racism and islamophobia