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

Book Review: Thrive

A book for anyone who has ever felt the chaos of life overwhelm them but clings to the will to thrive anyway.

Thrive by JJ Eden is a collection of short stories and poetry that takes our deepest questions and fears about life and lays them bare in verse and parable. There were so many times while reading this collection that I felt my heart ready to climb out from the cage my ribs had become and soar into the stars. It was a journey I’ll gladly repeat, as it fed my soul in ways I needed then and I know I will need again.

This conglomeration of beautiful prose and witty refrain starts before we even see the table of contents, with an acknowledgement that reads like a love song to the misfits, the unwanted, the unruly. I loved every word of it.

But where Eden first got me is past the table of contents, past the intro, in a powerful poem titled who are you?, with a message to the naysayers, the toxic outsiders, and dare I say the trolls of our lives. Her message is strong, with more kindness than I could muster myself but with confidence and self-respect that I would envy in such a confrontation.

This pattern continues on with other poems like let your wild out and How I will fly, among others. In some ways, I imagined Eden as a mentor imparting hard-won wisdom and truth for my eyes alone; it felt intimate, genuine and breathless. Like each poem or short story was a gift, a truth that I needed to hear, and each left my soul a little lighter.

The Good:

There are some poems and stories in this collection that downright deserve a mic drop. When I read the ending to B R E A T H E, it felt like such a perfect representation of diversity that it took my own breath away.

There were a lot of these moments throughout the book, and that leads me to one of Eden’s biggest strengths in Thrive: her use of metaphor is incredibly on point. Nearly every poem or short story uses metaphor and simile to relate a feeling, an archetype or a theme seamlessly, bringing it all together in the last sentence or verse that drives it home. 

Eden also uses visuals to help bring her concepts to life. There are miscellaneous illustrations throughout, as well as strategic formatting of text in alternate layouts to help with certain concepts. It’s not overdone thankfully, as this technique can easily become distracting, but it adds just a little bit of flair and edginess to some of the stanzas.

Subject-wise, Thrive focuses a lot on self-worth, confidence, and respect. In all honesty, some of the things Eden tackles were words I was desperate to hear and never knew. Especially for those of us who struggle with self-esteem issues and anxiety, the world can be a heavy place to exist. It eases the load to have books like this where we can see there are other ways to exist than in our heads burdened by our own detrimental thoughts and emotions.

Should You Read It?

This is the kind of poetry book I would gift to people in my friend circle that I knew were struggling, or had struggled in the past. It’s a boost of self-awareness to know that you’re not alone, and that others out there struggle with the same concerns but are winning the fight against their own self doubt. 

That is what makes Thrive so powerful: at the end of the day, it’s a book that makes you wonder what it would be like to live with that self-confidence, to survive the lows, and gives you a spark on the road to get there.

I would recommend this book to anyone who needs a small or big boost of confidence and self-acceptance. Read it in spurts or all at once—it’s not a terribly long read—and I highly recommend re-reading it, because it’s not a one and done road. Let this book be a reminder and a companion on your journey to loving the person you are, and who you will grow to be.

Spark Level:

I rated Thrive as spark level Sparkler; it left me with a sense of whimsy and wonderment that filled me with the warmth of new beginnings and the possibilities of tomorrow.

Trigger Warnings: None.

Book Review: Cherrington Academy

Clandestine relationships. Blackmailing roommates. After-hours excursions. And a gorgeous, grey-eyed rule breaker that may set Logan Shields’ first year at Cherrington Academy on a trail of fire.

Cherrington Academy by Rebecca J. Caffery is a coming-of-age novel following transfer student Logan Shields on his escape from homophobic bullies and neglectful parents to the private boarding school, Cherrington Academy. It’s here that he makes his transformation from victim to self-awareness, albeit with many dramatic turns along the path.

Logan was the victim of physically abusive bullies and has the scars to prove it. When he convinces his often absent parents to send him across the country to the esteemed Cherrington Academy, he sees an opportunity for a fresh start away from the site of his childhood traumas.

Cherrington quickly becomes his safe haven, as Logan falls in with a tight-knit crowd. Though coming in as an outsider, they envelop him with open arms and give him a sense of security and safety he’s never experienced before.

But Logan is untrained in the art of friendship, and when the gorgeous Isaac begins to show an interest despite being in a long-term relationship, he begins to lose himself in the promise of love.

The Good:

High school novels featuring LGBTQ+ characters have a tendency to focus on coming out or the secrecy of a relationship based on queerness. They often rely on the experience of homophobia as the driving force.

This was where Caffery laid down her first card; Cherrington Academy does reference homophobia in places, but more in reference to the aftermath. The trauma Logan experienced is part of his character and part of his struggle, but there are few places within the book where homophobia was actively portrayed.

Instead, queerness was simply presented as part of the character, a backdrop for the larger story, which was really about relationships, coming into yourself as a person, learning from mistakes, and how to make amends. This was a bold choice, one that I think we need. When we only get one narrative in the genre of high-school fiction it becomes homogenous and disingenuous, ignoring large swaths of the queer experience in a high school setting.

Where homophobia does come in actually relates to the experience of trauma at a young age. Caffery doesn’t shy away from showing the long-term traumatic effects of bullying. We see the scars of his past—his fear of coming out even amongst close friends, his physical flinching in certain situations, his panic attacks. These are long-lasting effects that don’t go away once someone is removed from the situation. I applaud her for not relying on the ‘quick fix’ scenario but letting it partially define Logan’s character.

The hallmark of this book is the attention to relationships. There’s a large cast of characters, which has the potential to become unwieldy. But because the space the novel exists in is mostly contained to the school, it gave Caffery the ability to really develop the relationships within the novel and have us follow along without missing a beat. This meant flawless, full-rendered relationships that worked like a spider’s web to weave together a friends group that didn’t leave readers confused.

The characters in Cherrington Academy all feel like they’ve been molded from real-life examples because they’re so well executed. There’s a theory in fiction that when writing a novel, to the reader a character and world should feel like an iceberg; like we’re only seeing the tip, but it goes much further down. This means that in order for a character to feel real, the novelist needs to know more about the character than what is actually mentioned in the story. The characters in this novel feel like they’ve been precisely developed to minutiae, and it shows.

Should You Read It?

As always, please read the Trigger Warnings at the bottom of the article if you have certain triggers that may potentially prevent you from enjoying this book. This particular book was lighter than many I’ve reviewed, but please still be cautious if you know there’s something you need to look out for. Self-compassion first!

The actual plot of the novel reads like a high school version of The L Word or Queer As Folk. If you’re a fan of dramas, especially featuring queer characters, this will be up your alley. It brought memories back of my own high school years (and all the drama that ensued!) which I think speaks to the reality of what Caffery is trying to show.

On a personal note to my readers who may be looking to gift this to a teenager in their lives, it’s something I’d be comfortable giving my niece who is sixteen. I felt it was a positive example of queer fiction that would be appropriate for that age group (and for us older folk too) without ruffling too many feathers.

Spark Level:

I rated Cherrington Academy as Fireworks. It reminded me that sometimes the largest flames burn the fastest, and the smallest of sparks should be cherished, always.

Trigger Warnings (Highlight to Read): Depictions of Depression & Anxiety, Homophobia, Terminal Illness

Disclosure: I received an Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review of Cherrington Academy by Rebecca Caffery.

Book Review: The Roots That Clutch

Those who control the waters control all. They are the god-kings. 

The Roots That Clutch by A.E. Bross is the beginning of a series centered around found family, the struggle for survival and independence, and what it ultimately means to love someone knowing that doing so can lead to loss and heartbreak.

In a world without rain, steady access to water is a privilege enjoyed by few. What little can be found in wells and trickling from dying springs is heavily sought after. To thirst is to know suffering in the shadow of the god-kings that control the water source, tyrants that dominate bustling city-states under false divinity.

Under it all is magic, the thauma. To be a wielder of the thauma, a thaumaturge, is to be hunted and enslaved by the god-kings. 

In a disgraced city on the edge of civilization, we meet a young child, Tirzah, who in her desperation reveals her secret powers and begins a journey for freedom that may change the world of Theia forever.

This is the first book in the Sands of Theia series, and so much of the book is centered around the growth of Tirzah from a five-year-old ‘curse’ tortured by her older sister into a woman running from her past and the ones that would enslave her.

We’re introduced to several characters throughout that become her found family, happiness a fleeting thing that she clings to as harshly as it’s torn from her grasp. Her elder sister Naomi, the steadfast Bariah Iram, and others along the way. Throughout it all ties the question in the back of Tirzah’s mind—is she the curse that her sister Sathar claimed her to be, or is the world simply a cruel place where happiness is found in inches?

The Good:

When we talk fantasy novels and series, the worldbuilding will often be modeled at least partially after the Tolkien genre of Medieval and mythologically influenced fiction. This model is a quick shorthand to get readers into the story more quickly by allowing them to focus on what is different from other fantasy books, rather than focusing too much on what is the same.

Bross took a different approach in The Roots that Clutch. The world is inspired by Arabic climate and culture, something that isn’t unheard of in fantasy but not as common. It was refreshing to get a different take, and the worldbuilding was so seamless it never once got in the way of the story—a sign of a steady hand backed by research.

There was also a lot of diversity, without any of it seeming forced or unnatural. Bariah Iram, one of Tirzah’s adopted family, is non-binary, or neutral as it’s called in Theia. There are same-sex relationships represented in the story. None of this is seen as odd or unusual, but as another natural aspect of the culture.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that about halfway through the story, I came upon a section that had a pretty significant emotional effect on me, to the point where I had to stop reading for a while to process. Without spoiling anything, suffice to say that the section was extremely well written, and the suffering Bross brought out on the page affected me so deeply that it brought up a lot of pain from my own life that I haven’t fully processed. This wasn’t a detriment of the book, rather a testament to how well Bross managed to evoke emotion through these characters that it brought me to tears.

Should You Read It?

As always, please see the triggers before you consider picking up this book. I would like to add that there are areas that can get pretty heavy so practice self-compassion and awareness if you’re reading this (or any book really) and need to step away for a while to process like I did. You can always come back when you’re in a better place.

That said, this book is a great beginning to what feels to be a pretty epic fantasy series in a world that is both unique and treacherous. There are no guarantees for safety in any corner, but even in a world where every shadow can mean danger, there’s time for happiness and joy. That’s what makes this book great. It doesn’t promise a happily ever after but it does promise there will be happiness along the way.

If you like fantasy with a twist; epic reads with treachery, assassins, magic, and fighting; tales of broken families filled with betrayal and revenge; or just want a book you can’t put down, I highly recommend The Roots that Clutch. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Spark Level:

I rated The Roots that Clutch as spark level Torch. I’ll carry the lessons I’ve learned along with Tirzah with me throughout my day, remembering that found family is stronger than blood and that the happiness of now, together, is worth a million tomorrows. 

Trigger Warnings: Contains depictions of abuse, violence, and death/dying.

Book Review: Tiny Tales

Tiny tales that cover everything from love, to heartbreak, to murder, and are sure to satisfy even the shortest of attention spans.

I first came across Tiny Tales by Jana Jenkins when I was starting to initiate a new reading habit. It had been nearly a decade since I was an active reader, and while I was making progress, I was struggling to find books that would hold my attention. Tiny Tales is a series of bite-sized stories that range in genre, but all of which leave you with an aftertaste that lingers.

Tiny Tales is a collection of microfiction—stories that are three-hundred words or less. In Jana Jenkins case, these stories are the size of a tweet, and were originally posted on her twitter under the #vss365 tag (very short stories 365.) They are at most 280 characters long to fit into the size of a tweet.

It’s broken into five sections: The Wicked Ones, The Wholesome Ones, The Creepy Ones, The Bittersweet Ones, and The Cheeky Ones. Each section has a different tone—you can guess which is which from the section titles. Though each story shares a mood, the characters, settings, genres, and plot are different in each individual microstory.

The Good:

Many of the stories in Tiny Tales employ a literary technique that always, always gets me excited, because it’s one of my favorites that I often use in my own fiction. Most of the stories have a plot twist at the climax or at the end of the action. That is to say, many of the stories lead the viewer into thinking it’s going in one direction, but pull the rug under us surprising us with a creepy, amusing, or heartwarming twist. This technique is a great tool in microfiction which often relies on extreme plot changes for intrigue, and Jenkins wields it well.

The advantage of having the stories fit into categories is that you can pick a story based on the mood you’re in or the mood you aspire to. Feeling down? Read some of The Cheeky Ones. Need a good cry? Read some of The Wholesome ones. The brevity means you’re not committed to spending large chunks of time on any one story, so you can be flexible on where you’re reading.

There are some stories that broke my heart, some that gave me chills, and some that literally made me laugh out loud. It was a rollercoaster that was well worth the minute cost I paid for such a wide variety of moments.

Should You Read It?

The beauty of Tiny Tales is that the stories are so compact. You can read through the stories in one big go through like any other book, but if you have the Kindle app on your phone, you can also read it story by story between waiting in doctor’s offices, between meetings, or on your break at work. The stories themselves can be read in a minute or less, making them easy to swallow quickly in short spurts. This made them such a good break for my mind, taking me a bit out of my life and into another world for just a little while. A small escape.

And that may be the biggest strength of Tiny Tales: it teaches non-readers the fine art of how to escape into a book. When I saw the premise for Tiny Tales, it was like it was written for people like myself. We’re trained by our technology, advertising, and media to not give anything any more than a few seconds of our attention at a time to begin with. It’s no wonder many of us struggle with such an attention-intensive activity as reading a book. While by no means should the novel go by the wayside, there’s something to be said about books like Tiny Tales being used as a bridge between the inattentive reader and the one who can read a full novel. It’s a teaching tool as much as an enjoyable experience.

Spark Level:

I rated Tiny Tales by Jana Jenkins a Spark Level of Book of Matches. Each tale made a small spark that gave me an inkling of an emotion, a tiny moment of time in a life not my own.

Trigger Warnings: None