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April 2024 Book Reviews


It's been a busy couple of months, but in the best of ways. This month's books are alternately extremely fantastical and all too real. Thanks as always to the publishers and authors who send their books my way!


OTHERWORLDLY
by F.T. Lukens
Now Available

Ellery doesn't believe in the paranormal, unlike their parents. The family farm has been failing since an endless winter began five years ago, and their mother insists on making petitions to a trio of deities. For their part, Ellery prefers to make money at the local diner and send it home. Soon, though, they have no choice but to believe in the supernatural—because the hot guy they've been eyeing at the diner is on the run from it.

Knox is a familiar from the Other World, sent to assist with an ill-advised bargain. With his current master now deceased, he should return home. But that would mean giving up the human life he's come to love, having his memories erased as soon as he returns home. And considering his queen appears to have rejected all his messages, he'd sooner stay in the mortal realm for a while. He strikes a bargain with Ellery: in exchange for helping him experience the human world to the fullest, he'll help them find out how to end the endless winter. But the answers he finds are troubling, and could mean the sudden end of their blossoming relationship.

Otherworldly blends down-to-earth YA romance with paranormal mystery. Fortunately, it sidesteps the less-than-appealing tropes that seem to have taken up residence in paranormal romance as a whole—mainly the idea that predatory behavior isn't a deal-breaker. Knox and Ellery are a sweet couple, and the supernatural world built around them is enthralling while still being small and centralized enough to not overshadow the human story with lore dumps.


KING OF DEAD THINGS
by Nevin Holness
Available April 16

Eli and Malcolm are two young men whose lives are shaped by magic. While Eli wields the power to heal others and take parts of their magic for himself, Malcolm inherited a strange death magic from his father. Malcolm's memories of growing up are fraught with tragedy and heartbreak; Eli has no memories prior to three years ago, and now lives in a Caribbean restaurant doubling as a magic sanctuary. When an ancient power starts to awaken, their paths will cross.

Her name is Mercy, and she has deep ties to Malcolm's father. But the only thing that can stop her is an artifact that Eli is hunting down. Together with Eli's friends Sunny and Max, the two boys venture through the magical underbelly of London. From shapeshifters to spirits, they'll encounter all manner of things good, evil, and in between. And in the process, they'll learn more about themselves, as the spirit known as Mercy tempts them both with the one thing each wants most in the world.

King of Dead Things is a fascinating urban fantasy, taking its cues from Afro-Caribbean mythology and folklore. But you don't need to be highly versed in, or even all that familiar with, this culture to jump in. It's an intriguing gateway to new and less-told stories. Best of all, magic in this setting isn't something to be hushed and hidden from mundanes: it's an inherent part of life if one simply knows where to look.


FINALLY FITZ
by Marisa Kanter
Available April 23

Ava Fitzgerald, known as "Fitz" to her friends, is right where she wants to be in life. She's got a spot in a prestigious summer program where she can pursue her dreams of being a fashion designer. She's sharing a New York apartment with her awesome girlfriend Danica. And, best of all, her Instagram account is absolutely popping off. But when Danica asks for a break, purportedly because of Fitz's social media fixation, everything comes crashing down. In an effort to win Danica back, Fitz goes on an enforced Instagram hiatus. Just to show she can.

Enter Levi Berkowitz, Fitz's childhood best friend who also happens to be in town. He's going through it after a similar (but less Instagram-related) issue with his own girlfriend, and has been occupying his time conducting houseplant rescues, which he showcases online. Then Fitz gets an idea: fake dating. She'll optimize Levi's social media presence and slide herself in as the new girl, making both their exes jealous enough to make a move. It's a great plan, at least in Fitz's eyes. But real feelings seem to be arising between the two just as the plan appears to be working.

While Finally Fitz hits a lot of the YA romance tropes (especially the "fake dating to lovers" trope), there's one thing it does exceptionally well and uniquely: a frank discussion of social media. Instagram is not the villain in this story; rather, it's the mindset that catering to the algorithm can cultivate in the minds of creative people. Ultimately, this is a story of learning how to love every part of yourself and letting go of needing to check all the boxes for everyone around you.


WHERE WAS GOODBYE?
by Janice Lynn Mather
Available April 30

Six weeks ago, Karmen's life fell apart. Her older brother, Julian, died by suicide—and now it's time for her to go back to school. With her family grieving, her friends unsure how to help, and a certain classmate getting verbally aggressive, Karmen eventually snaps. Her outburst gets her sent home, to give her time to heal, and her family is at odds about how to treat this time.

Karmen, however, is on a mission. She's determined to understand what happened to Julian. With help from her crush Isaiah, Julian's former teachers and classmates, and new student Pru, Karmen immerses herself in her late brother's life. His love of skateboarding and his fascination with history lead her down unexpected paths. And the more she uncovers, the more it hurts. Who knew that Julian was hurting? Could anyone have helped him? And, most important of all, what happens next?

Where Was Goodbye? tackles the nasty, real, important parts of grief that don't make for good inspirational social media posts—but that deserve to be talked about. Grieving even the most expected of deaths can feel isolating, as people around you seem to have a knack for saying exactly what you don't want to hear and doing exactly the opposite of what helps. Fortunately, the book shows a variety of examples of being there for grieving friends: the wrong way, yes, but also multiple right ways and "not right but well-intentioned" approaches. It's a powerful book and a difficult read, but one that anyone who's lost a loved one (or cares about someone who has) needs to read.

TEA REVIEW: The Spice Chai Mélange


Thanks as always to Chapters Tea & Coffee for having me on board as an affiliate! If you want to try any of their custom tea and coffee blends, be sure to use my code KARAD15 for 15% off your order!

Full disclosure: I'm not really a fan of rooibos. I tend toward honeybush, but rooibos has always tasted slightly medicinal to me. I'm also very picky about chai: a good chai is amazing, but a weak chai just tastes funny unless it's been doctored with milk and sugar. As someone who tends to take my tea very straight, that means a lot of chai isn't right for me.

So with all that in mind, why did I pick up a tea blend that is one thing I'm historically not into and another that I'm extremely about? Answer: because I trust Chapters that much, and I figured if anyone could make me like something, it's them. Also, I need to be better about providing myself with low-caf and decaf options for late-night tea drinking.

Great news: The Spice Chai Mélange is good, even in my highly skewed opinion.

Like the rest of the Chapters catalogue, this rooibos chai blend hails from literary inspiration: in this case, a certain sci-fi epic that's been back in the cultural consciousness lately. Note that while the tin art is absolutely gorgeous, this tea is not an official tie-in product; it just deserves to be.

The first thing to note is that the chai spices in this tea are strong; the second thing to note is that this is why I couldn't taste the "medicinal" notes that usually turn me off to rooibos. The blend includes ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, nutmeg, and black and white pepper. I'm pretty sure it's those last two that make the difference, because this tea has a wonderful bite to it that I usually don't get in chai blends outside of restaurants. I have yet to milk or sugar this one up because of how I personally prefer to take my tea, but I get the feeling it would be perfect for a late-night latte.

As someone who favors strong teas but is also highly sensitive to caffeine, I have a hard time finding teas I can drink late in the day or at night. Decaffeinated black teas just taste kind of wrong, and herbal teas (unless I'm specifically in the mood for them and/or not feeling well) don't hit the way I want them to. The Spice Chai Mélange is a great middle ground.

While A Date with Mr. Darcy is still (in my opinion) the best of the Chapters tea blends, The Spice Chai Mélange is a fantastic alternative for decaf drinkers. There's also a somewhat sweeter Chai Café Vanilla if you'd prefer a black tea.

Check out the full selection of Chapters teas and coffees, and remember to use my code KARAD15 at checkout for a discount!

REVIEW: The Ultimate RPG Game Master's Guide

 


So, I'm a little scared to run a game of my own. I've walked right up to the line several times, even made a few two-session attempts, but there's a massive anxiety around actually DMing. I've watched lots of people master this and become amazing, and yet I always pull away from actually starting a campaign of my own at the last minute.

I'm not sure what it is I'm missing. Maybe the fear that I'll upset a player, or miss an important social cue that could make or break party harmony. Maybe I'm fearful of making something too challenging or not challenging enough, or not approaching the story in the way players want. It all comes down to a fear of letting everyone else down, and not bringing the same magic to the table that so many other DMs have provided me.

I am apparently not the only person who feels this way, because there is a whole book about how to feel less that way... or, rather, how to channel those feelings into productive action.

The Ultimate RPG Game Master's Guide comes from James D'Amato, who's been taking up more and more space on my shelf as of late. He combines his knowledge of good gaming with the ability to create actionable advice—an underappreciated skill in this day and age. Like his other works, this book is equal parts reassurance, general advice, and a toolbox of resources that can be used either beforehand or in the moment.

It was somewhat reassuring to see the first few chapters covering things I already knew and took to heart: the idea that there's no one "right way" to play, the importance of establishing expectations and boundaries early on, and so on. But it lays those things out in clear language, even giving sample scripts for if a disruptive player needs to be asked to leave the table. Even better, it offers ways to categorize and work around players' boundaries; for example, how to change an encounter that could be upsetting to a player with arachnophobia while still maintaining an entertaining "fear" level.

Best of all, there are charts and tables. Previous D'Amato books have employed dice and decks of cards outside of game mechanics to generate random questions and talking points. Here, they're tools to map out side quests and NPCs. There's also a chapter on how to create an in-universe fortune-telling deck, as well as how to use it both diegetically and to further the plot.

At this point, it's a no-brainer to say that something by James D'Amato belongs on your shelf if you're a TTRPG enthusiast. But I'm so pleased this book arrived on my doorstep. It's exactly what the frightened would-be GM needs: reassurance on the things they already know, and actionable tips for the things they don't. It's a book I'll be re-reading and sharing for a long time to come.

NOW AVAILABLE: Overdue: Mystery, Adventure, and the World's Lost Books

 


Throughout history, great books have been lost or are remembered only as myth and legend. Now, the mysterious Booker Foundation has announced it is willing to pay handsomely to have these lost works brought back into the light. These are the stories of those who answered the call.

Overdue is an anthology that has been a long time in coming—to the point that I was a very different person in a very different life when I wrote "Wholly Holy." But not so different that I'm not still extremely proud of it. Of course, it helps that the people at 18thWall know what I love and how to get an interesting story out of me.

This anthology combines Jon Black's Bel Nemeton and MH Norris's All the Petty Myths, and invites in a lot of new-to-both-universes writers (myself included) along the way. The key conceit is books: books that have been lost to time or are believed to not even be real. That was our brief for these stories. It had to involve a book (either of real or manufactured legend) and the quest to find them.

Me, I picked a real-fake book. And I once again leaned into my love of all things Arthurian, in particular my love of anything involving Sir Perceval. (Readers of Shadows Over Avalon, also from 18thWall, will be familiar with my story "The Maze Will Come to Me" on that front.) "Wholly Holy" was actually written first, but I'm kind of pleased that the two stories have landed so close to each other.

The book in question is Kyot's Parsifal, which (sadly) probably doesn't exist. But what if it did? Wolfram von Eschenbach, in a desperate bid to avoid looking like he ripped off Chretien de Troyes, claimed that the two of them were both inspired by this piece of writing. A piece of writing that was based on very true things, in turn implying that the story of the Holy Grail was very true. It was a fascinating prospect, because simply assuming that Kyot's Parsifal is the tip of a huge, terrifying iceberg. If it's real, then the Grail Kings are real. The lineages of said Grail Kings are real. Somewhere out there is the vessel from the Last Supper. And a book falling into the wrong hands could change the world as we know it.

Without giving too much away, because I would very much like you to buy and read this book, this very literal Grail Quest falls into lap of someone who's not especially interested: Faye Lundgren, who's currently busy culling her late father's collection of books and was never as into Arthurian legend and lore as he was. Writing a hero who refuses the call at pretty much every turn was a challenge, but it was a challenge I wanted... partly because, as someone who's deeply into this stuff, I wanted to write someone a little less like myself. I'll save more musings on that for my eventual interview on the 18thWall blog. Regardless, it was a challenge I enjoyed.

Another challenge came when fitting this story into the worlds of Black and Norris's books. I needed to make a few tweaks to make sure my Grail quest didn't stomp all over theirs, but the result was a lot of fun and (I think) made for a much cooler story.

You can buy Overdue now in a variety of formats, and I'd love it if you would. Tell your friends, support indie publishers, and do let me know what you think!

March 2024 Book Reviews


It's a new month... well, it has been for a bit. And a new month means new books! This month is full of YA reads ranging from romance at the gaming table to baseball history and finding your family through dog-walking. Plus, a new Arkham Horror novel, and (appropriately for the middle of the month) a courtroom drama starring Julius Caesar.

Thanks as always to the authors and publishers who send their books my way for consideration!


THE NO-GIRLFRIEND RULE
Christen Randall

Available now

Hollis Beckwith's main—and initially only—reason for seeking out a Secrets & Sorcery group is so she and her boyfriend Chris can have something else in common. She'd play at his friend group's table, but they have a strict "no-girlfriend rule." Unfortunately, her first foray into playing with a new group goes poorly... but a well-placed tear sheet guides her to the table of Gloria and her all-girls S&S campaign.

Soon, Hollis finds herself at home with this new friend group. In particular, she becomes close with Aini Amin-Shaw, who's playing the dashing bard Umber. Before long, Hollis is drawing art for the group and building playlists for "Steadfast," the ship for Umber and Hollis's paladin Honoria. But as her new friend group is thriving, her relationship with Chris and her old group is falling apart. It's almost as though he resents her finding "her people." Not only that, but Hollis finds herself wondering how much of Steadfast is really just in-character.

The No-Girlfriend Rule is a cute teen romance, but it's a lot of other things, too. As a person with anxiety who loves dramatic tabletop games, I was comforted to see the intersection of mental health and gaming handled. (There are many points at which Gloria's table is shown to be supportive and communicative, including what happens when a story beat triggers a panic attack for Hollis.) Little things like dice shopping and playlist building felt familiar. More than anything, it presents a healthy view of choosing your gaming group: rejecting the idea that there are "right" and "wrong" ways to play, and instead embracing the idea that there are groups that are right for you.


I AM ROME: A NOVEL OF JULIUS CAESAR
Santiago Posteguillo

Available now

If you're anything like me, you spent a good portion of high school up to your ears in the history of Julius Caesar. Even if you didn't, history and literature both remember him for his many achievements. But I Am Rome brings him and his family to life in an intriguing way: through the trial of Gnaeus Cornelius Dolabella.

While extremely non-linear in nature, I Am Rome uses this historic trial as a centerpiece. Caesar, then an untested prosecutor, steps up to bring Dolabella to justice for extortion and other crimes. As Caesar prepares his case, we witness the building blocks of his genius approach: the influence of his uncle Marius, his relationship with his wife Cornelia, and the wisdom of his mother Aurelia, to name a few. From tricking his opponents into underestimating him to combating very real threats against his life and the lives of his witnesses, Caesar battles his way to the end of the case. But whether he wins or loses, his loved ones know he has a target on his back.

I Am Rome is, understandably, a dense read—something to bear in mind on approach. While there are plenty of footnotes and the final edition will have historical endnotes, it's something to bear in mind. If the Roman Empire isn't, well, your Roman Empire, the convoluted timeline of the book may not hold your interest. However, the core of the book is fascinating, especially in its humanization of its many legendary historical figures. I was hoping to give credit to the translator, but sadly have had difficulty finding their name. They do, however, deserve credit for a job well done here.


SONG OF CARCOSA: AN ARKHAM HORROR NOVEL
Josh Reynolds

Available now

Just now, Pepper Kelly isn't quite sure who she is. Usually, she's the assistant of reformed thief Alessandra Zorzi, traveling the world in search of occult artifacts. But other times she's Camilla, lover of Cassilda and resident of the twin-sunned city of Carcosa. As time goes on, the boundary between these two worlds begins to blur. And if Alessandra can't acquire the Zanthu Tablet soon, all hope for Pepper is lost.

Thus, the two venture to Venice, where an artist is preparing to stage a new production of the infamous King in Yellow. Allies and enemies shift roles almost as much as the players in the play itself, and battles take place in the street and in Pepper's mindscape. As the performance approaches and King's reign becomes ever-more inevitable, Pepper has a revolutionary and dangerous idea that could either save or doom them all.

In this house we love and respect Josh Reynolds, and Song of Carcosa continues that admiration. This take on The King in Yellow and its mind-bending story is a fascinating one, leaning into just how it influences its reader... but, more importantly, how a reader could potentially influence the play itself. The characters are weird and wonderful, and the story leans into its source material without leaning on it. Even if you haven't read these characters' previous outing, it's a fantastic read for any fans of eldritch horror and historical adventure.


WARRIOR ON THE MOUND
Sandra W. Headen

Available now

The year is 1935, and ten-year-old Cato has one dream: play professional baseball. While pitching for his small North Carolina town's team, he aspires to join a Negro League team like his late father before him. And when the opportunity arises to practice on a local field, the team jumps at it. There's just one problem: another team, an all-white team, plays there. And many of the members don't take kindly to Cato and his family and friends.

Despite the help of an unlikely family friend and the growing admiration of his son Trace, Cato and his friends find themselves fighting an uphill battle. A series of games played to increase goodwill in the community soon turns dangerous—even more so when Cato learns the truth of how his father died. Not everyone sees the Rangers' aspirations as "just a game," and fighting for their right to play baseball quickly turns into a fight for their lives.

This is not an easy or lighthearted read, but it is a very good one. Warrior on the Mound confronts the good and bad of the history of baseball: the many talented Black players who populate its history (with people and places bearing their names), as well as the challenges and dangers they faced. But for as much unpleasantness as it lays bare, this book also demonstrates its fair share of courage and compassion in the face of that unpleasantness. There are plenty of positive role models for young readers to look to and (hopefully) emulate, even in the book's darkest moments.


WALKIN' THE DOG
Chris Lynch
Available now

Louis, unlike his mother, is known for being an "inactivist." It's not that he doesn't acknowledge the bad things happening in the world; he just isn't convinced he can do much about them. But with his mother away from home receiving care and a friend of his father's in need of assistance, there's only so much longer he can remain inactive. So begins an unexpected summer gig as a dog walker, starting with the smelly hound Amos and branching out into other clients.

Along with this growing clientele comes a growing friend group. As Louis's mother urges him to become more aware and active, he reconnects with Cy, one of her more accomplished tutees. He also crosses paths with the strong-willed but personally reticent Agatha. Balancing this new social life, work, and an incoming shift from homeschooling to "real" school would be enough for one inactive kid. But there's also his violent older brother Ike to deal with, as well as the looming specter of his mother's mental health. And, as it happens, dog-walking isn't always a walk in the park. We invest a lot of emotion in our furry friends, but they can't be with us forever.

I'm a firm believer that books for young readers deserve to be just as artfully written as books for adults, and Chris Lynch goes above and beyond in Walkin' the Dog. His writing style is engaging and clever without ever feeling quippy or overshadowing the growth of his characters. Louis, for all his inactivism, is a likable character, and we want to watch him grow and mature. It's a meaningful, delightful read that's about so much more than dog-walking.

COMIC PREVIEW: When the Blood Has Dried

 


One of my favorite things about Sci Fi Magazine was the fact that I got to squeeze a graphic novel review in among the books. As someone who reads almost exclusively manga (in terms of comics, at least), it was a reminder and opportunity to take in Western titles. Best of all, it was a chance to show people things outside the Big Two.

Similarly, I always feel a bit of a pang when something that would have been perfect in the magazine's pages comes my way long after it's shuttered. I had a chance to read the first installments of Gary Moloney and Daniel Romero Ulloa's When the Blood Has Dried earlier this year, and everything about this new title hit all the right beats. A compelling story, gorgeous art, and a fantasy setting rooted in the kid of drama and personal pathos we all seek out tabletop games for.

When the Blood Has Dried was described to me as a "high fantasy spaghetti Western," as well as being inspired by Moloney's own early experiences with tabletop gaming. All of those influences are readily evident in the first handful of volumes. The action starts in the small town of Carraig an Bhun, where Meabh has gone from newcomer to trusted inn owner. But that peace can only last for so long, as her past begins to catch up with her.

Cutting between Meabh's blood-soaked past and her desperate attempts to hang on to a peaceful present, this post-adventure adventure is off to an excellent start. The worldbuilding spins out slowly and unforced, teasing our hero's own past at the same pace as the workings of the world around her. And the "spaghetti Western" (as well as "fantasy Cowboy Bebop") comparison is apt. There's action, but it's not high-octane or overclocked. The pacing is perfect and, having read up to the third installment, I definitely look forward to more.

If you're a fan of grittier D&D campaigns or "post-adventure adventure" fantasy, this is definitely one to adopt early. Issue 1 drops April 10, but you can pre-order it now.