Science Fiction

More Things SPSFC2: The Slushpile Continues!

Happy October and welcome back to my progression through the team’s slush pile of SPSFC2 books! First off, let me link a few general updates from across the competition and other judges on our team!

Once again here is the link to the general competition website so you can see the updates from all the teams:

The cover contest also had a winner, and there’s a cool interview that everyone should check out as well as the other top ten winners!

In other news, The Captain put up his thoughts on the first seven books so go see that for sure at this link here 

Our first 7 books don’t quite match because I can’t alphabet, but don’t be alarmed, all the books will get their time in the spotlight!

In case you missed it, my first seven books are listed towards the end of this link here. I’ll do the next seven here and then start a new post for the halfway point! All prior disclaimers stand, these are my opinions alone and I encourage everyone else to check out these books regardless of my opinions.

Without further ado, let’s get on with the next selection of books!

#8 is The Diamond Device by M.H. Thaung.  It’s another shorter one at 270 pages, a little steampunk and a little potential heist work. I was not exactly enthralled but felt pretty neutral, and am willing to read on to see if the scifi elements develop. I voted yes

#9 is Earthship by John Triptych.  It’s a bit of a longer book at 495 pages but they flew by. This is probably my favorite read so far as it immediately gripped me in both action and content.  I liked the characters, felt all the tension, got invested, and am sad to put it down at 20%.  Voting yes 

#10 Next up is Earth Warden by Tyler Aston.  I love the cover and think it’s a decent idea, but nothing about the writing, actual story, or delivery was really drawing me in.  I gave it about 25% and was just not feeling invested, but I do encourage sci-fi action fans and possibly space opera fans to give it a look. My vote is no

#11 Moving right along… The Elitist Supremacy by Niranjan is up next! This started out as a potential medical mystery or medical thriller and had me all eyes and ears, and then I unfortunately lost track of the storyline in a small sea of names and events and technology.  It’s a shorter book at 252 pages and seems to hold a lot of intrigue and thriller aspects for the right audience. I really think it’s got a lot of good ideas and just needed some help in execution. I am voting no


#12 The Emerald Princess by J.D. Richards is listed as a sci-fi adventure, psychic mystery, and female sleuth on Amazon.  I was interested in how San Diego changed into its current state in this future world, and how/why the war took place to turn Earth into a colony of another species. That said, at 20% the book had mainly focused on a mixed race human/conquering species character and her trials as someone without full citizenship on Earth.  I liked that the action kept moving but I also needed either a larger, central conflict, more background, or at least the mystery aspect to grab onto the story. This is also a vote no for me, but if you like character-central books without the info dump, this is one to check out 

#13 Empire of Ash & Blood  

#14 Empire Reborn

To be continued …..

Fantasy Fiction Horror audiobooks

Wizard & Glass by Stephen King (or, why I can’t finish a series)

Ever notice that I tend to get about three or four books into a series and then quit? The fact is that in between ARCs I never had time to read these giant, door stopping books, and once they got above 8-900 pages I was just about out of luck …

Well, this book was one of these clonkers. It took me two weeks to get through it even listening on partial audio (28 hours total 😭) so it’s kind of easy to see where a reader with deadlines gets to these longer books and comes to a screeching halt.

Or maybe that’s just me.  Anyway, the great Mark Lawrence wrote (see GoodReads) that you are either a Roland (and hate Wizard & Glass because no progress is made) or an Oy (you love everything about the journey despite it being a giant flashback).

For once I am glad that I’m taking the time to be an Oy, and this is a more than appropriate kickoff to GrimDarkTober.

Bookish Quick Facts:

  • Title: Wizard & Glass
  • Series: The Dark Tower #4
  • Author: Stephen King
  • Publisher & Release: Grant, 1997
  • Length: 704 original hardcover (my PB around 930 pages) 
  • Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐✨ I’m team “enjoy the journey”

Here’s the synopsis:

Roland the Gunslinger, Eddie, Susannah, and Jake survive Blaine the Mono’s final crash, only to find themselves stranded in an alternate version of Topeka, Kansas, that has been ravaged by the superflu virus. While following the deserted I-70 toward a distant glass palace, Roland recounts his tragic story about a seaside town called Hambry, where he fell in love with a girl named Susan Delgado, and where he and his old tet-mates Alain and Cuthbert battled the forces of John Farson, the harrier who—with a little help from a seeing sphere called Maerlyn’s Grapefruit—ignited Mid-World’s final war

So this book started out where The Wastelands left off, in an epic riddling contest between Eddie and Blaine the Mono. Was I belly laughing at the dead baby jokes? 

Um…. Maybe? I had a cathartic laughing experience at the baby and the SuperFlu one, I have such tied up feelings about pandemics and it’s not usually who I am but I think I just needed to laugh at something particularly horrible.  Some inner turmoil definitely released there, so thank you Mr King.

Anyway, Eddie is probably turning into one of my favorite book characters of all time, even if our main characters essentially drop off the page once Roland starts his story.

It’s creepy, dark, witchy, mystical, had me absolutely cringing at some especially gory parts, and was everything I’ve come to expect from King at this point.  I wanted Roland and Cuthbert and Alain to succeed. It was painful to watch youth and inexperience war against the more hardened players as they uncovered the true goings on in Hambry.

Not going to lie, I’m all for Roland and Susan too.  I was actually pretty broken up about how that all ended.  P.S. none of this is spoilery, it’s all alluded to in prior books.

Character wise – really quick – yes I liked the boys and their personalities. It was nice to finally “meet” them. Rhea the witch is probably the creepiest witch I’ve read in a LONG time, and more than once I had to put it down and go think non-gorey thoughts for a bit.  Sheemie was the real hero in the pages for sure.

One thing that struck me was the level of anticipatory grief that I was having for certain character deaths that actually never occured. They have to happen at some point but not all happened here and for that I was glad, because it was hard enough to read what was already there.

I do wish that King hadn’t essentially gone all Wizard of Oz at the end. It was just weird, and felt a lot weirder than the whole Charlie the Train thing he had going on before.  I won’t hold the ending against the rest of the book but it did put a weird taste in my mouth after such a disturbingly wonderful journey.

Quick note on what I heard from Frank Muller when I was listening – he’s a great narrator and added a LOT to the story, made my skin crawl reading Rhea’s parts!

Long story short: I’m an Oy. I appreciated the journey and am excited to keep reading forward.  When will I have time for the next book, even longer at 931 pages? I hope next month! 

The Dark Tower series so far:

1. The Gunslinger

2. The Drawing of the Three 

3. The Waste Lands

General Posts, Non Reviews

GrimDarkTober & TBR Time

October? I’m just going to tear the calendar off the wall, this is ridiculous.  If you missed my September Wrapup & General Update post, you can find it here.   The final item on it stated that obviously I can’t do GrimDarkTober without Bookstagram, but is that really true?

I had one good friend comment and a few others message me that they enjoyed the content and will miss the festivities, interviews, and such, so I chewed it over and asked some friends for help.  The result is that I’m going to host a hodgepodge of Grimdark content here, from some of my favorite writers in the blog verse, which will all be finalized sometime soon and I’ll post a schedule as I know it.  If enough people follow along maybe I can do prompts and prizes via Twitter next year?

Also if anyone wants to write a spooky themed or grimdark feature to be hosted here, let me know! I’m open to lists of favorites, guest reviews, articles, spooky recommendations, Halloween photography, literally anything you want! 

For now, I have a kind of tentative TBR laid out that hopefully won’t go to trash like last month’s reading.

1) I’m actually almost done with Wizard & Glass, which is turning out to be spooky, sad, and everything else King is known for. I’m definitely an Oy and enjoying “the flashback book”

2) Other Birds by Sarah Addison Allen – this is one of the last finished copies I received from St Martin’s Press and I need to get it read and featured asap.  There are ghosts, invisible birds, a murder mystery, lost stories, and more, so it’ll be a good reprieve to read some magical realism after King destroys me at the end of W & G

3) I set it down last month because it was too similar to my prior reads and too dark for me to enjoy at the time, but I’ll pick up Gunmetal Gods by Zamil Akhtar again in the spirit of GrimDarkTober! Idk if he’d be willing to interview but I’m probably going to ask

4) Lakesedge by Lyndall Clipstone – a finished paperback I was sent by the publisher and need to get a move on reading. A haunted mansion, gothic, atmospheric, a monstrous boy that spoiler alert, I bet the main character is going to end up kissing … Judging by the fact that it’s YA and at a 3.5 GoodReads rating, I’m trying to stay optimistic

5) Unrelated to anything spooky but I stole a friend’s copy of Starship Troopers and need to return it, so that’ll be on my list. I know the movie had some disturbing scenes so maybe I can put a dark spin on it

6) GrimDarkTober classic edition – Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde was voted my fall classic by the good folks of Twitter. It’s short and I’ll plug it in somewhere.

7) On the same poll, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne came in a close second.  If I don’t end up scaring off the person/people that might buddy read, I’ll get on that too at some point this month

8) The last one on my definitive TBR is a real Grimdark – The Trials of Ashmount by John Palladino.  He is definitely not my super special Halloween interview guest (Is he?  Can we confirm or deny this yet)? Updates when I know

I’m sure I can squeeze in another book or two but that is my definitive October TBR for you guys!  I keep telling Kevin Ansbro that I’m going to read In the Shadow of Time, and I owe St Martins a review for B.A. Paris’ The Prisoner out 11/1  … So we will see how it goes.

Guest Content: I also have guest posts coming from a few other bloggers so stay tuned for reviews of Norylska Groans by Michael R Fletcher and Clayton W. Snyder from the amazing Dr John Mauro of Grimdark Magazine, The Worthy by Anna Moss from Jamedi at A Vueltas por los Mundos, and, some other confirmed guest content! Get on the list if you want, there’s plenty of time!

What’s on your October TBR?

General Posts, Non Reviews

OK Bye September (Reading Wrapup & General Updates)

Another month went by already? When did that happen?

September was terrible for me in terms of reading.  As far as number of books, page count, and even audiobook listening, this was THE worst reading month I’ve had in four years.  I’m posting this wrap up a day early as I’m probably going adventuring tomorrow and there’s nothing else to say this month, except in no specific order, the following:

1) Books Read: I only finished 7 books. All have been reviewed here and The Blacktongue Thief followed by Foundryside were my two favorites. Not even going to lie that three of those seven were audiobooks and I feel so useless as a reader.

2) On the blog: I also wrote three or four general posts this month, including one about romance in scifi that smashed my record post views to date.  Possibly more on this below. I also outlined some favorite things in my library that didn’t get much love, but that’s ok.  I also only did one Sunday Brunch interview 😭 but I’m trying.  Some good news is that comments and actual interaction are up again!

3) Bookstagram update: The hacker thing ruined me. I lost everything just shy of 10k followers and had the account returned at 0/0/0 content. I didn’t bother changing the username back and just uninstalled the app. It’s probably a good thing but I felt a bit ill about reading and posting for a week or so and am now working on restructuring my thoughts about bookish media in general. It’s created a bit of a reading funk.

That said, the response from the book community was mind blowing, and thank you all.

4) Sept Book Haul: I only bought one book this month (see Asimov wearing a bra), and then my lovely booksta friend sent the history book along with a note, and I might have gotten emotional❤️

I also had the book haul from my contract completion points at work and I spent the whole thing on books. Now I finally own physical copies of some John Gwynne books, and others


5) So you’d think that being off Bookstagram would give me a lot more time to read but I’ve been working 48-60 hour weeks and it’s been crazy. No time to steal a few pages here and there, heck I’m lucky to have dinner tonight (not though, just writing this).

6) September SPSFC2 update – I am doing OK with the slush pile. So far 10 books down, and I need to put up the second post to start sharing more thoughts as I go. That reading ate up a lot of time earlier this month but it’s been fun

7) Books? Boys? Idk. This one is kind of bookish but it’s more of a SEND HELP situation since I managed to develop an insensible crush on a person that lives across the ocean, which is just flipping great. I’ve got no idea what I’m supposed to do with it but full disclosure, I’m a silly American girl who is powerless against winsome pictures.   Apparently.  Regardless, it’s been interesting to chat and I’m learning a lot about books and other things, which makes this a bookish matter. Someone should probably knock some sense back into me STAT (I’ve got a baseball bat you can use) and now that’s part of my reading wrapup & general update this month.

8) I’m going to post a separate October TBR.  Obviously I can’t host GrimDarkTober and spooky bingo without Bookstagram, so that’s just depressing.  I thought we would have many more years but maybe next year I can make it a thing on Twitter.  I’ve got my yearly super secret Halloween interview lined up though and let’s just say we are planning a wild one 🎃

I guess the good news is that September is (almost) over, spooky season is here, and I’ve got a killer lineup of books to hopefully make October a better reading month! 

How did you do this month? Any great reads? Did anyone else struggle?

General Posts, Non Reviews

The October Book Releases Are Everything This Fall

As most of you know, I’ve spent most of the past few years requesting and reading a ton of ARCs across various genres.  I stopped doing that around March and haven’t been paying as much attention to new releases, but October is really a special month as far as some of my favorite authors are putting books out, and others look like true must reads

So let’s look at a few that I’ve either pre ordered, have an ARC, or will at least buy once they show up on Book Outlet for sure

In no specific order (after my most anticipated):

1) Righteous Prey, by John Sandford. Release 10/4

There’s a new John Sandford, and it’s a Davenport & Flowers collaboration! While my quest to reread the series from #1 failed, I am keeping up with the new releases still.  Part of me thinks Sandford should have quit while he was ahead, part of me will always preorder and drop my TBR for anything he writes. I think possibly the only thing my father and I have ever agreed on is that Sandford should have quit at Twisted Prey (a great book) and not introduced the Letty series, or any further Prey books, as there’s really nothing new he can do at this point and we don’t love reading Lucas at this life stage 🤣

2.  The Revolutionary by Stacy Schiff. Release 10/25

While I neither need to nor am particularly interested in reading another book on Sam Adams, I’m interested in the author as a decorated biographer.  I currently use the Mark Puls biography as my Adams recommendation (short, entertaining, fairly unbiased), but I’m always happy to see Revolutionary History being published anew by different voices and would check it out if I saw it at a used price.

3. The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy. Releases 10/25 but I’m waiting for the box set, linked below

Holy shit, Cormac McCarthy hasn’t written anything since he devastated and destroyed everyone with the saddest dystopian ever, The Road, like what 15 years ago? I don’t even care what it’s about and am floored to read his new book, and it’s a duology which is cool.


The next two books kind of go together in my mind, even though they are vastly different:

4. Madly, Deeply: The Diaries of Alan Rickman. Release 10/18

Umm yeah just sign me up for this. One critic stated that it reads “like a conversation” and just, yeah, just, sign me up 

5. Beyond the Wand: The Magic and Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard by Tom Felton. ALSO out 10/18

Here’s something you don’t know about me: Tom Felton is actually my favorite cast member of HP because he seems like a riot, supports animal rescues, reads a lot of dirty Slytherin puns, and seems like a generally upstanding individual. Plus swoony accent and generally…. You know, /swoon.  I’m not sure which book is riding which book’s coattails but putting them out together seems like a good move and I’m here for both of them

6. Night Of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove by Rati Mehrotra. Release 10/18

I already read and reviewed this one and generally would recommend for YA fantasy fans, it’s a lovely and rich medieval Indian setting and I’m a fan of Mehrotra as far as YA goes 

So those are the six that I’ve already read or am planning on reading this winter!  There are others too like a new John Grisham called The Boys from Biloxi, but I’m not caught up on his works and am content with my back log.  If anyone is still following Maggie Stiefvater and what I affectionately call “The Ronin books”, Greywaren is coming out too which seems to focus on the parents. There’s a new Colleen Hoover (thanks but no thanks) and just so many other new books coming out

Are you excited for any upcoming releases?



The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah (Book Thoughts)

I actually finished this book a few weeks ago and my thoughts never coalesced into anything productive.  The Stardust Thief was my last read with the OpenlyBooked Book Club on Instagram and while I enjoyed reading it, I found it extraordinarily hard to focus on.

Whether that’s my state of mind, the pacing of the book, the slow burn, or what, I really don’t know. It took me three weeks to read and became a struggle by the end despite having liked it for the most part.

Let’s take a look at the book and then a few specific thoughts. Also if you have the hardcover make sure to hold it up to Google Lens to hear a message from the author!

Bookish Quick Facts:

  • Title: The Stardust Thief
  • Series: The Sandsea Trilogy, #1
  • Author: Chelsea Abdullah
  • Publisher & Release: Orbit, May 2022
  • Length: 480 pages
  • Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐ for fans of desert settings, stories about stories, 1001 Nights, jinn magic, and fantasy with clean content

Here’s the synopsis:

Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights, this book weaves together the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp.

Neither here nor there, but long ago . . .

Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.

With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

By all accounts and descriptions, I was expecting to be utterly enchanted by this book.  I love stories about stories and storytellers, folklore is my jam, and I love a good lush setting full of tradition and magic and lore. So why did I struggle with this?

For one, the flowery writing style tripped me up when it harshly contrasted with lighter, choppier areas of text. I like purple prose at times but when I’m tired and my brain is already full, overly descriptive writing can bog me down.  Then when she switched to an action scene the sentences became short and often repetitive, which threw me since I don’t think she accomplished the sense of urgency she was going for with the contrasting writing styles.

I did really like the setting and imagery though since the author used the environment to bring the story and journey of the characters to life.  Tying that into the world building we definitely got a good picture of life in the Souk, the oases, the palace, and all the music and food and people contained within.

The magic was definitely the strongest aspect.  Jinn stories are endlessly fascinating and I liked how the various ifrits had different abilities and powers, as did their blood.  Is this a good time to talk about Qadir? No spoilers but I loved his character until the big mystery reveal felt VERY young adult.  I had to go and look at what age group this was for again, as I felt like I was reading a YA at times and other times it did feel more mature.

The characters and their relationships were another strong suit.  I get so sick of reading romance in fantasy and I truly actually loved the themes of unrequited love and friendship. Loulie never got closure with Ahmed, Mazen and Loulie ended up as friends, and Aisha found her own way. Qadir had his lovers soul on hand and I like that the author kept him loyal to it.

Friendship and stories were such a refreshing theme to read about for once.

In general I liked all of the characters too.  Mazen and his child like love for stories and history was definitely a highlight.  When we got into the “parchment pages” of his telling I think there were some of the best parts.

My biggest gripe was the title of the book.  The Stardust Thief was mentioned once, in passing, about a character that wasn’t even one of the main group, and it didn’t fit the description at all. Yeah it sounds cool but with no stardust involved, no one is stealing it either…. So humph.  I’m being cranky, but humph. It also bugged me that the editor let a few things slip like at one point where the horses were gone, and they had been walking for two days, Loulie turned around in the saddle.

So to wrap this up, there is plenty of action, balanced with travels, stories, rich imagery, powerful magic, and good characters & banter  in general should have made this a wonderful and engaging story.  I think my feelings of neutrality are more a reflection on my state of mind than a true representation of the book, and I would fully recommend it to anyone who likes slow burning, character driven stories about legend and lore.


Book Tour Feature ~ The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

Thank you so much to Berkley Publishing Group (Ace) for having me on the book tour for The Witch and the Tsar!  I feel terrible for missing publication date but was hoping to recover my now defunct Bookstagram account prior to doing the feature, but anyway, here we are!

Let’s just dig right in and take a look at the book, which I fully recommend for fans of historical fantasy, Russian Mythology, and books that feature women of lore.

Bookish Quick Facts:

  • Title: The Witch and the Tsar
  • Series: N/A
  • Author: Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
  • Publisher & Release: Ace, 09/20/22
  • Length: 432 pages
  • Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐✨  sure if you like historical/Russian fantasy

Here’s the synopsis:

In this stunning debut novel, the maligned and immortal witch of legend known as Baba Yaga will risk all to save her country and her people from Tsar Ivan the Terrible—and the dangerous gods who seek to drive the twisted hearts of men.

As a half-goddess possessing magic, Yaga is used to living on her own, her prior entanglements with mortals having led to heartbreak. She mostly keeps to her hut in the woods, where those in need of healing seek her out, even as they spread rumors about her supposed cruelty and wicked spells. But when her old friend Anastasia—now the wife of the tsar, and suffering from a mysterious illness—arrives in her forest desperate for her protection, Yaga realizes the fate of all of Russia is tied to Anastasia’s. Yaga must step out of the shadows to protect the land she loves.

As she travels to Moscow, Yaga witnesses a sixteenth century Russia on the brink of chaos. Tsar Ivan—soon to become Ivan the Terrible—grows more volatile and tyrannical by the day, and Yaga believes the tsaritsa is being poisoned by an unknown enemy. But what Yaga cannot know is that Ivan is being manipulated by powers far older and more fearsome than anyone can imagine.

This book reminded me a lot of Circe, in that the author went out to humanize and reclaim a mythological witch’s narrative and somewhat succeeded.  It also falls right into that genre of cold, dark, and bloody Russian mythological stories like the Winternight Trilogy in which we desperately need more books.

The story itself is so rich and complex. Yaga must come out of her exile to save Russia from Ivan the Terrible, while finally learning what it means to be both a mortal and part deity.  I loved the story itself even though it was often a slow burn with some dubious pacing.

Bringing mythology into history is always challenging. Gilmore wrote a stunning appendix featuring both the deities and real life historical figures that she brought into the story.  As someone who gets hung up on accuracy vs. interpretation a lot, it was cool to have the author point out where she took the biggest liberties and learn what she found important in the real life historical sense.

The world build & setting is quite well done too.  I have come to expect lots of architecture, idolatry, clothing, food, customs and lore, and lots of cold weather from these stories and Gilmore does not disappoint. I loved it all from the rich imagery of the palaces to the bloody descriptions of the military police riding out and the towns they devastated.  There’s a constantly solid blend of tragedy and hope that I liked quite a bit.

Like any story of Russian evolution, one big conflict was the old spirits & mythology vs the new Christian god. I think this was nailed as Yaga tried briefly to assimilate to court before everything went to hell, where she got a first hand view of everyone’s shiny new Christianity.  Weaved throughout are the descriptions of sprites and spirits, lesser and more powerful gods, charms and other magic.  With characters like Little Hen and Volos, the magic really had a life of it’s own too.  Yaga’s spells and abilities were interesting enough, made more so when she filled the gaps in her learning with a mortal witch and then was able to travel through dimensions of the spiritual realms.  The gods and goddesses obviously had influence and magic too so there was always something mischievous going on.

Lastly let’s meet the characters! Yaga wasn’t the fearsome witch I expected at all. I found her lack of knowledge a bit disorienting at first considering the length of her existence and legendary witchery.  She really had pretty limited skills at first and constantly didn’t know what to do in various situations, but then we see that Yaga had some of the lessons but none of the context from her mother’s teaching. It took a while to build up her experience and characterization.  She gained a much greater awareness throughout the book before fully embracing herself. There were lots of good character arcs too like the Tsar’s descent into tyranny, Vasily as the Russian soldier archetype, Marina, and of course the mediating of all the feelings associated with changing times.

Overall this was a pretty solid debut.  The book got a tad repetitive at times and slowed it’s pace way down to focus a lot on Yaga’s journey. None of it was bad but I ended up docking some points for how it really did feel like a much longer book. That said, I loved the history and magic, the setting and imagery, and in general I am a big fan of Gilmore’s writing! I’ll be looking for whatever she writes next for sure!

⚔️Thank you to the publisher for my early reading copy via NetGalley! All opinions are my own ⚔️

From.the Publisher:

Olesya Salnikova Gilmore was born in Moscow, Russia, raised in the U.S., and graduated from Pepperdine University with a BA in English/political science, and from Northwestern School of Law with a JD. She practiced litigation at a large law firm for several years before pursuing her dream of becoming an author. She is most happy writing historical fiction and fantasy inspired by Eastern European folklore. She lives in a wooded, lakeside suburb of Chicago with her husband and daughter. The Witch and the Tsar is her debut novel. Learn more online at


Author photo by Nicola Levine Photography, LLC 2021!

Science Fiction

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang (Book Thoughts)

Bookish Quick Facts:

  • Title: Exhalation: Stories
  • Author: Ted Chiang
  • Publisher & Release: Knopf, 2019 (this edition anyway)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I finished the Exhalation collection yesterday and after browsing the top reviews on GoodReads, immediately decided that I was not smart enough to write any kind of reaction to this collection.  I actually sprung a headache trying to decipher some of these people’s essays.  Anyway, then I shook myself out of that idiotic train of thought because if a review is more complex than the original text, and it’s giving my fairly literate brain a headache, what service is it doing?

As I was dwelling on the complexity and profundity I didn’t feel, it occurred to me that I read most of this book while in a haze of exhaustion and general feelings of “f*ck me my face hurts”, but I also don’t think that affected my absorption or comprehension of the text and ideas.  So anyway, go read BlackOxford’s review if you want to feel smart, read mine if you want to feel like not a theological historian 🤣

Was I reading in a brain haze this week? Yes. Did I find any profound ideological connection to this? Not really. Did I enjoy reading it? Heck yes. Chiang has a straightforward, no nonsense writing style that is easy to read while not being overwhelming.  One can pick or choose how deeply to dive into the context of any given story. I’ll admit I’m not in the best place to emotionally connect to stories right now though, so when I revisit Chiang in the future I’ll be sure to do so in a clear mind.

As in any collection (short stories aren’t necessarily my favorite thing to read) there are some really great stories, as well as some that I didn’t connect with at all. Some ideas were interesting enough that I would put the book down and think it out a bit prior to reading the next, while some I admit my reaction to was: huh?

One thing I liked was that no matter how off track Chiang would get in the middle of a story, even if I had NO clue how he was going from point A to point C, he would wrap each story up with a powerful conclusion that let me come around and say -“OH OK yes that’s what he was getting at”! As in, he left no doubt between the conclusion and the author’s note what the takeaway idea/food for thought was intended to be.

My favorite part of the book in general was how each story had an author’s note at the end, so that the process of reading felt more like a conversation. It was interesting to hear where he got his inspiration from, what ideas were important, and he tossed in a few anecdotes too.  Any major questions I had were usually answered by the author’s note which is somewhat validating because I assumed it meant I was asking the right questions.

To talk about a few specific stories and ideas I liked –

The Lifecycle of Software Objects – I’m still just wondering what exactly that lady intended to do to that robot at the end. That said, it was a cool story (and the longest at 150 pages) because you can’t go wrong with AI and ethics and Chiang certainly didn’t.  I also liked all the platonic, unrequited, interesting character relationships that evolved as the humans and AI interacted with one another.

My favorite story to read was The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling, because I just think it’s cool to examine memory and remembrance and the written form across cultures and society. I would certainly not want to remember every detail and argument of my life, I would go absolutely insane.  It was the most relatable to me as far as the forgiving vs forgetting theme and how we piece memories together. Oh Nicole, I feel you.

In Exhalation: so this was probably the most “profound” story but I’m a critical care nurse in real life and I don’t need anyone to preach inevitability to me.  Been there, had that existential crisis already. The robot surgery was for sure an interesting idea.

So yes, yes, go examine your life and have profound thoughts, for sure, don’t let me dissuade you from writing a dissertation on this story but I’m only here to enjoy the ride.

The other story that stood out was Omphalos and the lady that had to reassess her world view regarding the existence of God as science evolved.  It was another story where I wasn’t sure what Chiang was getting at until the end and I ended up struck by the theme of finding your own peace and satisfaction in the day to day, and, I guess finding your own validation.

Overall, the best I can do is advise people to read Chiang on a fresh brain and stay open minded throughout each story, since the ending always brings the story around full circle. Don’t let a few really, really smart sounding reviews and elitists scare you away.

I would definitely recommend Chiang to hard sci-fi fans and those who like to chew on big ideas, or, those who just enjoy a good story.  There’s enough slice of life thrown in that I  think just about anyone can read these and get some enjoyment out of it.

What made me feel small today was standing under these 8+ foot fall sunflower type variants, I don’t need the graveyard of space to feel like an inevitable ant thanks 🤣


Author Interviews & Guest Posts Fantasy Middle Grade

Sunday Brunch Author Interview Series: Featuring Thomas M. Kane

Happy weekend to you all and welcome back to the Sunday Brunch Series! Episode 26 features Thomas M. Kane, author of many scholarly books and articles as well as the fantasy series Mara of the League!

He was kind enough to join me today to talk about Mara, Cold War history, his time writing gaming material, and tons more!

Without further delay, here he is ⚔️🥞

🍳Welcome to the Sunday Brunch Series! As an introduction, can you tell everyone an interesting fact about yourself that isn’t in your author bio?

🎤 I used to live with a cat who ate paper. He figured out which button to press to make my computer printer eject sheets of it, so whenever he finished with one page he could help himself to another.

🍳What’s your brunch order today?

🎤 Pancakes sound good!

🍳So you also published gaming material? I was interested in learning more about your transition from gaming supplements, to role playing for students, to eventually lecturing on military exercises?

🎤 Yes, I broke into professional writing by publishing articles for role-playing games in Dragon magazine in the 1980s. Roger Moore, who was then editor at Dragon, was incredibly supportive. By the early 1990s, I was writing adventures and supplements for a wide variety of game systems, notably Shadowrun, Cyberpunk. GURPS, Top Secret, Talislanta, Ars Magica and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

A lot has changed in the gaming world. However, I’m thrilled to add that some of my work is still in print. I’m especially pleased to say that Atlas Games is still offering the Cyberpunk and Ars Magica adventures I wrote for them. Atlas encourages an original approach to writing gaming scenarios, with emphasis on character development. My work for Atlas includes The Chrome Berets, a Cyberpunk adventure in which characters wage guerrilla warfare. Greenwar, another Cyberpunk scenario featuring corporate takeovers and South of the Sun, an Ars Magica sourcebook about the legendary kingdom of Prester John.
I also designed wargames for Strategy and Tactics magazine and Command. When I started teaching politics at the University of Hull, I developed a module (i.e., a class) called The Nature of War, which dealt with the human side of warfare. To give students a taste of the confusion and complexity surrounding military command. I ran a week-long simulation of the World War Two German attack on Tobruk. Students took the part of leaders on the opposing sides and spent a week writing battle plans. We then worked out what we thought would have happened if they had implemented those plans in real life. The students often spied on the opposing team and attempted other hijinks which added to the fun.

Meanwhile, as you mentioned, I participated in a Royal Navy wargame called Operation Tropical Endeavour. I also observed a simulated battle involving real tanks at the US Army’s National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin. The NTC trip was especially valuable from a writing point of view, since it was an opportunity to see what military operations look like when you are in the middle of them. Or, perhaps, not to see—one truth which Fort Irwin demonstrates is that modern battles take place across great distances, and that the enemy is usually out of sight.

🍳You also travelled a ton while living in the UK, do you recall having a favorite destination?

🎤 When I was growing up, I really wanted to explore a cave. In Europe, I finally got to. Being deep inside the earth is an amazing experience. Perhaps the most memorable cavern I visited was the Cueva de la Pileta in southern Spain, which features paintings that are approximately 20,000 years old. The paintings are extremely detailed and realistic—more realistic, in fact, than the relatively recent prehistoric artwork found in other parts of the cave.

🍳Let’s talk about your series, Mara of the League!  You likened the Waan conflict to the real-life Cold War, in which to summarize, neither the U.S. nor Russia really wanted to attack each other directly. How did the war translate into a fantasy series for you?

🎤 You are right, that’s one of the most important similarities. Mara’s homeland, the League, is locked in a rivalry with a country called Waan. Both sides know that if they wage a full-scale war, they risk devastating the countryside and triggering a civilization-ending famine. Therefore, they spy on each other and stir up trouble for one another’s allies while trying to avoid direct confrontation.

This standoff has lasted over a century. Most League citizens expect it to go on forever. However, as the story progresses, Mara becomes convinced that Waan’s leaders see the stalemate as no more than a temporary obstacle, and that they are working to engineer a situation in which it can invade the League at an acceptable cost. The question then becomes whether she can convince her rulers to fight back against Waan’s plot in time.

So, the Mara of the League series is mainly an adventure story. The first three books involve espionage and political intrigue. Book Four features military strategy and battlefield action. The series also devotes a lot of attention to Mara’s thoughts and to her attempts to make sense of her world. Like the university class I mentioned earlier, this series is very much about the human side of things.

Anyone who enjoys exciting stories can enjoy this series. Those who are interested in history may notice that Mara is facing situations which resemble crises which erupted in real life. Fans of Cold War thrillers may notice that I’m taking a different approach from many authors in that genre. Sir John Hackett set the tone for many Cold-War-gone-hot books with his novel The Third World War (spoilers ahead).

The Third World War depicts a scenario in which weak Soviet leaders stumble into an ill-considered war with the West. The numerically superior Soviet forces do considerable damage at first, but Western defenders thwart them with superior technology and skill. Soviet leaders then fire one nuclear missile, but when the West retaliates with a single nuclear strike of its own, the Soviet government collapses.

Hackett’s novel is enthusiastic about military hardware. It pays relatively little attention to the ways in which a third world war would touch the lives of its characters, and of everyone on earth. Although Hackett suggests a political scenario which could bring war about, he depicts the Soviet leaders making hasty decisions, with few motives beyond staying in power. He glosses over the fact that the Soviet Union was founded upon a belief system which held that war to the death with the liberal nations was a historical necessity, and which gave them a compelling reason to prepare for such a conflict in a long-term and systematic way. Other thrillers (e.g., Ralph Peters’ Red Army) present the Soviet Union as a more formidable opponent, but even they stick to tried-and-true scenarios of Soviet numbers going head-to-head against Western hardware. A great deal of Western military planning rested on the assumption that something like this would happen in real life. Real-life international relations scholars tended to downplay the importance of Communist ideology as well.

Russia’s mistakes in its 2022 invasion of Ukraine makes Hackett’s depiction of Soviet incompetence seem believable. On the other hand, the increasingly visible ideological splits in contemporary politics remind us that Soviet leaders may have sincerely believed in their version of Communism. Fortunately, we will never know whether Hackett’s vision was realistic.

The Mara of the League series takes advantage of its fantasy setting to get away from arguments about what would actually have happened if the Soviet Union had attacked the West and explores what might have happened in an ideologically-driven conflict where the antagonists know what they are doing.

🍳Whew. What would you say to someone who reads that and says “Wow, I’d love to read the Mara books but I know nothing about this portion of history”?

🎤No background knowledge is required. The story begins with an eleven-year-old girl trying to save her family. She doesn’t know much about war or politics yet. Readers learn along with her.

🍳What prompted you to start Mara off as a tween, and grow her up pretty quickly throughout the series?

🎤As an adult in Book Three, Mara warns her country’s ruler of an attack no one else sees coming. Many think she is wrong, and that following her advice could provoke a civilization-ending war. Her experiences at twelve and seventeen helped her see threats which others overlooked and motivated her to want to defend herself at all costs.

[[She also got used to standing her ground when people thought she was wrong as a young kid! My favorite theme so far is trusting your own logic and intuitions]]

🍳You took an unconventional view of witches which I really liked, and brought a rather realistic fear of magic into the first book.  Why did you choose that take, vs, say, bringing real magic into the series?  Did it fit into the “flintlock fantasy style” a bit more?

🎤So glad you liked it! Mara spends her youth confronting her own country’s injustices. So, much of the story concerns the ways societies respond to dissent, the ways people turn against each other, and the ways powerful institutions keep control. The fact that Mara’s government did not need any evidence of real magic to accuse her aunt of witchcraft was part of the point.

However, real magic may exist in Mara’s world. There’s a scene in which her father claims to have seen it. When I came up with the idea for this series, I planned to include working magic. I planned to have it play a role in warfare similar to the role played in real life by nuclear weapons. As I started to write, I found I could tell the story I wanted to tell relying solely on the real-life problems of feeding armies in the early gunpowder era, so the magic weapons turned out to be unnecessary

🍳I loved the audiobooks and thank you for the chance to listen! How did you connect with your narrator? Was it a positive overall experience bringing Mara to audio?

🎤Again, so honored by your kind words! I beta-read Stevie Marie’s excellent fae-based fantasy Heart of Darkness. A few months later, she posted on Twitter that she planned to start narrating audiobooks. By good fortune, I saw the tweet and responded to it. I am thrilled with her work, and I’ve gotten lots of encouraging feedback. I’m incredibly grateful to have connected with her.
I’m currently listening to Stevie’s Kingdom of Acatalec. It’s a science fiction adventure about a feisty pilot who competes in an illegal drone race to save her friend. Strongly recommend.

🍳Have you read anything amazing recently?

🎤A few months ago, I discovered Gillian Flynn’s thrillers Sharp Objects, Dark Places and Gone Girl. I found her characters relatable and really enjoyed the way she explores their thoughts and feelings. Also very much admire the way Flynn crafts sentences. Unfortunately, she hasn’t written much, so I went looking for other authors who take a similar approach. This led me to discover Paula Hawkins, who is also brilliant. Just started Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, and it looks as if it is going to be fantastic too.

🍳Thanks so much for taking the time to interview! The last question is always an open forum, so please take this space to talk about anything I missed, or anything in the world that you want to share!

 🎤Now that Mara’s series is complete, I’ve written a book about her mother Abigail. Abigail is a seventy-eight-year-old lawyer. As the war between Waan and the League rages around her, she comes out of retirement to defend a teen accused of murder. This fantasy legal thriller is titled The People vs. Abigail Bennet, and it will be available for sale in early 2023.
I also invite everyone to subscribe to my free monthly newsletter at Every issue includes original articles or short fiction. The next issue features a return to Life in a Cup, a series of humorous tales and personal reflections based around experiences I’ve had drinking coffee.

There you have it! Thank you as always for tuning into Sunday Brunch, and do let us know if you enjoyed this interview!

You can find the author and his books online at:



Book sales:


Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett (Book Thoughts)

While I admittedly haven’t done much reading this month, for various reasons, I was finally able to finish Foundryside. The book was an August buddy read on Discord that I was interested in but couldn’t get to on time, and I’m glad I eventually did.

Bookish Quick Facts:

  • Title: Foundryside
  • Series: The Founder’s Trilogy #1
  • Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
  • Publisher & Release: Crown, 2018
  • Length: 513 pages
  • Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐⭐✨ for fans of the genre that don’t mind a deep dive into magic systems

Here’s the synopsis:

In a city that runs on industrialized magic, a secret war will be fought to overwrite reality itself—the first in a dazzling new series from City of Stairs author Robert Jackson Bennett.

Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle.

But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic—the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience—have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims.

Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them.

To have a chance at surviving—and at stopping the deadly transformation that’s under way—Sancia will have to marshal unlikely allies, learn to harness the artifact’s power for herself, and undergo her own transformation, one that will turn her into something she could never have imagined

Alright so this is a steampunk-y heist fantasy with a very scientific magic system, lots of snark, and a group of characters that are typical individuals in an atypical group. Bear with me on this because the brave and tragic male character isn’t usually portrayed as the third wheel to the women and that’s where this book won me over.

First let’s talk about the narrative voice.  I personally do best with third person limited, where you see the world through the main character’s eyes and mind but the story is told by a separate narrator.  I like the style because I tend to view the book as a movie in my brain while I’m reading it, and if the imagery is realized well enough to create a realistic world for me to get lost in, all the better.

So that’s where I think the author really succeeded here.  Whether in the dumps of Foundryside, the commons, the guild areas of money and waste, or even the dungeon, I had no problem visualizing Tevanne unspooling around Sancia. 

To further tie that into the world building, remember my fixation with guild drama that started with Garth Nix? There’s tons of (but never enough) guild drama, politics, scheming, plotting, old customs, new customs, relics and religion and lore to really flesh out the world build.  Most of the slang was world based too.  “Scrumming” seems to be the Tevanni primary cuss word, and the explanation is just perfect 😂

Ok, let’s briefly do the magic system next.  It’s scientific, and it’s the main info dump of the novel. More than once, Bennett takes a deep dive into the science of his glyph/sigil based magic system called Scriving.  The whole point is to convince objects that reality is something else.  I’m just going to say that it’s by far one of the more interesting magics I’ve seen recently. It was extremely well thought out, although I felt like it bogged the pace down at times when instead of focusing on action, the magic took precedence. I’m not complaining but it made me zone out a bit at times and just felt like too much, so I docked half a star. Really, I’m nitpicking though.

For the most part the action and plotting moved along at a good pace, I may have phased out a few times but never would say J was bored reading. There’s more than enough mystery and nuance to keep it interesting where all else fails.

Alright I saved the best for last, let’s see why the characters are interesting. Sancia is a pretty typical thief, a really great thief, down on her luck needing money.  She has a snarky sidekick (Clef) who ends up being an inanimate object that can talk to her.  Then it’s kind of a mixed bag of people introduced and I was surprised at who ended up being important. There’s a cranky old scientist type (Orso) who I hated at first but he ended up being my favorite character. How amazing can a cranky old guy get? Apparently very. His assistant (Berenice) forms a friendship with Sancia and ends up being pretty bad ass herself. Lastly, the son of a Founder (Gregor) who just wants to make Tevanne a better, more just place, but his fate is in the hands of someone else.  Gregor also ended up with the saddest storyline – a good study in characters with deceptive narratives aka you’re not expecting to have your heart ripped out by them but you do.

Put them all together, and you end up with a super cranky and reluctant mentor figure overseeing two absolutely powerful women, with an equally righteous and brave man that while important, kind of ends up being a third wheel to the women. There’s a lot of nuance and development in the group interaction that I really liked.

Ok let me wrap this up before it gets any longer! If you like steampunk, in depth magic, political intrigue, guild drama, dark and ancient forces at work, world building, and random groups of people working together to topple a capitalist society, you would probably love Foundryside.  It’s not a happy book but it’s got it’s moments of darkness, light, torture, hope, misery, redemption, and all of the above. Overall I had a great time reading it and would definitely recommend.