“The Black God’s Drums” by P. Djèlí Clark – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Creeper, a scrappy young teen, is done living on the streets of New Orleans. Instead, she wants to soar, and her sights are set on securing passage aboard the smuggler airship Midnight Robber. Her ticket: earning Captain Ann-Marie’s trust using a secret about a kidnapped Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.

Goodreads


This one was my group’s #DiverseSFF pick for May. After many struggled with “The Brothers Jetstream,” we opted for something short for the next month – this one came in at 111 pages in paperback, or 3 hours 4 minutes on audiobook (I did the audiobook).

This was a fun romp set in an alternate-history version of New Orleans. In this story, the Civil War did not end in the rejoining of the United States, and there continues to be both a Union and Confederacy. However, New Orleans is a free port, where both sovreignties – and many from throughout the Caribbean – can come and go to enact trade. This feels fair for New Orleans, as they tend to consider themselves, culturally, their “own thing.”

One of the things that intrigued me about this one is that I would put it in the realm of steampunk, which I had never delved into before! There are airships, and Captain Ann-Marie has a mechanical leg.

Another fun aspect is that there is a mixture of religious and cultural beliefs that are woven through the story. (Again, totally fair for the ethnic diversity found in real New Orleans.) The main characters believe in orisha, which are a pantheon of gods and goddesses brought from African tribes to the New World. Our two main characters, Creeper and Ann-Marie, are imbued with special characteristics of two, Oya and Oshun.

And yet, they rely on some Catholic nuns for information.

Another interesting aspect in here is that The Black God’s Drums are actually an invention that allows the user to manipulate the weather. I know that in steampunk, we’re dealing with some theoretical contraptions, but this whole idea made me think of the current debate on geoengineering.

Overall, this was a fun, quick romp through a very diverse and lush alternate version of an already diverse and lush city. If you’re interested in mixing old traditions with outlandish science fiction inventions, you would definitely enjoy it.


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“The Tea Dragon Tapestry ” by Katie O’Neill – Review

BY: ANGIE HADDOCK


“Join Greta and Minette once more for the heartwarming conclusion of the award-winning Tea Dragon series!”

Goodreads


I had been seeing the illustrations from this series floating around on some bookish sites for a bit, and thought it looked cute. When I got the chance to preview this new installment, I took it! First, since this is the third in a series, I eagerly devoured the first two through Hoopla. Then, I read the galley of this one, “The Tea Dragon Tapestry,”distributed from Oni Press.

All the reviews and blurbs I had seen about the series used the term “charming,” and it’s actually apt here. Katie O’Neill is both the writer and illustrator. The world she’s created is full of diversity – main characters are of various genders, roles, colors, abilities, and even species. But it’s also full of tradition. Characters learn trades from their elders, and interact with dragons who have centuries-long lifespans. The major themes within the series include friendship and family, finding your path/place, learning, and caring for others.

The illustrations are warm and rich. Each story takes place over a period of time, and often different color schemes are used to denote the season or place of different threads within the story. There are sweeping vistas, character shots, and pictures of everyday home life. Even the margins are often filled with little doodles and details.

In the first book, we meet main characters Greta and Minette, who are just learning to take care of some tea dragons. Hesekiel and Erik are their teachers in this endeavor.

In the second book, we step back in time to when Hesekiel and Erik are a bit younger, and have not yet settled into their home that we saw in the first book. They are traveling, and visit Erik’s home village. We meet his niece, Rinn, and a full-sized dragon, Aedhan.

In the third book, we are back in the village where Hesikiel and Erik are settled down and teaching Greta and Minette about tea dragons. But Rinn (now an adult) and Aedhan also come to visit here. Since this book is the final one, it’s nice that we can check in on the characters from both of the previous books.

The main threads of this story, however, focus on Minette and Greta. In Minette’s case, she is haunted by her past – which she only can remember in vague glimpses. At first she is frustrated with the feeling that she isn’t living the life she had started before. Eventually, she accepts that both her past and her present are important parts of her path.

In Greta’s case, she is trying to impress a blacksmith that she wants to apprentice for. At the same time, she is trying to bond with her tea dragon, who is depressed and not eating. She decides to make the dragon its own bowl, with her name and a cool design on it. The blacksmith is ultimately impressed that she chose to use her craft to communicate with another being, instead of making a battle instrument, and agrees to teach her.

The story ends with a little epilogue from Hesekiel, who is relieved that the girls are carrying on the tradition of caring for the tea dragons – an art he was afraid would be lost over time.

These three graphic novels are aimed at a middle grade audience, so they are fairly easy reads. But, they are a great respite for times when the world feels harsh. I would definitely recommend them if you need a little pick-me-up.

“The Tea Dragon Tapestry” was originally supposed to be published in October, 2020. It was delayed due to a printing issue, however, and is now releasing on June 1, 2021.


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“The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan” by Zig Zag Claybourne – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Saving the world one last damn time. When the Brothers Jetstream and their crew seize the chance to rid the world of the False Prophet Buford other evils decide they want a piece of him too. A wild race ensues to not only destroy Satan’s PR man…but make sure no one else gets to him first. Mystic brothers. Secret cabals. Fae folk in Walmart — and the whale that was poured into the oceans when the world first cooled from creation. Adventure doesn’t need a new name. It needs a vacation.

Goodreads


This was the April selection for my group #DiverseSFF read, and… I think I was the only person to actually finish it.

I really wanted to like this one – and at some points, I did. But I admittedly had to push myself to stay with it at times.

The first thing that stood out was the language. The book has its own rhythm, or way of speaking. It’s not just that the characters speak in this rhythm, in the dialogue, but the entirety of the book is written in it. At first, it was fun and different. But after a while, it wore on me. This could very well just be my own mental state – I wasn’t feeling it as much as I thought I would.

(I think the author is hilarious on Twitter, but maybe the patois is more entertaining in shorter doses.)

Most of my fellow readers, however, seemed to struggle with the story. We jump right into the characters and action without much explanation. While this can be a challenge, we’ve dealt with this before (most recently, in “The City We Became“). Because the characters talk fast, and throw in all sorts of references to other things that have happened, it can be difficult to mentally tie all the things together. However, as I stuck with the story, and got more acquainted with the characters, this mostly resolved itself. Even if I didn’t have the clearest picture of what happened before, I was now tracking the most recent events – the ones within the book – and had a full picture of those. So I didn’t let it weigh me down. And, around the half way mark, they finally offer some exposition!

The story involves a diverse crew of “Agents of Change” who are trying to stop a big baddy named Buford, who may or may not have been responsible for the death of one of their crewmates. The action takes them to Atlantis, which is a real place.

Our main characters are the Brothers Jetstream of the title: Milo and Ramses. We also meet characters who are immortal (or close), vampires, Atlantideans, clones; people who can teleport, who can jump into different realities, who can communicate telepathically, and who can communicate with creatures of the sea.

To that end, we meet Leviathan about a quarter into the book. He is an ancient beast who lives in the Atlantic and is massive in both size and psychic ability. At this point, he appears pretty briefly, but he comes back for the final battle later.

I would call this fantasy – maybe even urban fantasy? – more than sci-fi. The action takes place on Earth, present day, but involves a lot of creatures and concepts that are generally thought to be fictitious (like the city of Atlantis, or vampires). There are some fun bits here and there – good lines of dialogue, colorful characters. As I said, I did like it in parts. But overall, it felt like it was trying to throw too many things at you at once.


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“Twice a Daughter” by Julie Ryan McGue – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Julie is adopted. She is also a twin. Because their adoption was closed, she and her sister lack both a health history and their adoption papers―which becomes an issue for Julie when, at forty-eight years old, she finds herself facing several serious health issues.

Julie’s search for her birth relatives spans years and involves a search agency, a PI, a confidential intermediary, a judge, an adoption agency, a social worker, and a genealogist. By journey’s end, what began as a simple desire for a family medical history has evolved into a complicated quest―one that unearths secrets, lies, and family members that are literally right next door.

Goodreads


The Goodreads description gives away the entire plot of this memoir, really… but of course, there are tons of juicy details and emotional entanglements within the pages.

When the story begins, Julie is actually resistant to the idea of trying to find her birth parents. She is largely afraid of rocking the boat with the parents who raised her. Her husband, Steve, pushes her into starting this journey, though – for her own health, and that of their four children.

She gets her twin sister to agree to split the costs with her, but Julie is going to be the person doing the work. Her dad is supportive from the beginning, but her mom is not.

While initially interested only in medical histories, Julie becomes more engrossed in the emotional aspects of her search – wondering why her birth parents gave her up, if they’ll want to meet, and whether or not she has half-siblings.

Even after trying to obtain her original birth certificate, she hits one road block after another. The first one is a big one: Her mom used an alias on her original birth certificate, and the father isn’t listed at all. Apparently this was easier to do back in the 1950s.

Working in her favor, as far as the records are concerned, is that she is a twin. There could only be so many sets of twins born on a given day at a given hospital, right?

Also working in her favor are a lot of sympathetic people within the courts, Catholic Charities, and other avenues Julie tries to reach out to for help. In addition, the family members she eventually locates often bristle at the intrusion at first – but then soften because they have adopted members of their current families, and can understand the issues from both sides.

The issues at play are, of course, the birth parents’ rights to privacy versus the adoptees’ rights to know their history.

Most of Julie’s search takes place around a decade ago. She and her sister do use a DNA-testing kit to see if that gets them any leads, but to no avail. I have to imagine that the increase in use of such sites (and kits) in recent years is now shaking up the implied privacy that birth parents assumed they had in earlier eras.

(Backlist bump on that topic: “Inheritance” by Dani Shapiro.)

Overall, this was a good read. Not too heavy, but it can tug at the heartstrings here and there. It might be even more emotional for you if you’ve gone through something similar.

This book comes out today from She Writes Press, and I was able to read an Advance Reader’s Copy through Books Forward.


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“Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission–and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

Goodreads


This is the third official full-length novel from Andy Weir, who is mostly known for having written “The Martian.” (Even if you didn’t read that one, you may have seen the Matt Damon movie version.)

If you’re familiar with Weir’s other works, you will find this to fit right in. It’s heavy on science (and math), and comes in just under 500 pages. It also focuses on a character who needs grit and ingenuity to survive his circumstances, and it’s full of humorous asides.

The actual plot is entirely different than that of “The Martian” or “Artemis,” obviously, but how much can I tell you without being spoiler-y?

The story goes back and forth between what Grace is doing on his spaceship, the Hail Mary, and what happened on Earth before the ship’s launch. In these flashbacks, both Grace and the audience learn what his mission is, and why he’s involved.

That second part turns out to be a bigger deal than you’d think. More on that later.

We learn that our sun is being attacked by a small organism that humans name “Astrophage.” It’s reducing the sun’s energy/light output, which puts Earth on track for catastrophe in approximately 26 years. (Even a slight reduction in the Earth’s temperature will cause crop failures in some areas, leading to collapses of food chains and extinction of various species. It’s like current discussions of climate change, except with everything getting colder.)

Grace is a junior high biology teacher. So how does he end up on a space mission? We learn first how he got involved in researching astrophage, which makes slightly more sense. As the preparations ramp up for figuring out how to deal with the astrophage problem, Grace stays with the team determining what to do next. At this point, he knows more about astrophage than anyone else, so this still makes sense. We don’t learn how he actually ends up on the ship until we’re 80% through the book, and… it’s a total gut punch.

While this mystery keeps you guessing in the flashbacks, the real joy of the book happens in the segments on the ship. Grace has traveled to another solar system that seems to also have astrophage present, to see what’s happening there and if it can help Earth in any way. He’s been asleep for most of the trip, but now has to find what he’s looking for – once he remembers what that is. This is not as lonely and boring as one might think, but I don’t want to give away what happens. Let’s just say it’s fun, sometimes heartbreaking, and ultimately pretty awesome.

I am a classic right-brained person who is not great at science-y things, therefore I took this one kind of slowly. I didn’t look up the things he was talking about, to try to understand the science behind it. I know Weir is known for doing a good job with this stuff, overall, despite fictionalizing where needed. I just kicked back and enjoyed the ride. And it’s totally one you can enjoy, if you like science fiction at all.

This is sure to be another blockbuster under Weir’s belt, and it comes out today, May the Fourth. I was able to read an advanced copy through the publisher, Random House, and Netgalley.

Also, if you’re a fan of Andy Weir, check out this interview on Goodreads.


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“I Hope You Get This Message” by Farah Naz Rishi – Review

By: Angie Haddock


When news stations start reporting that Earth has been contacted by a planet named Alma, the world is abuzz with rumors that the alien entity is giving mankind only few days to live before they hit the kill switch on civilization.

Goodreads


This is a fast, fun YA read. The author is Pakistani-American, and I read this in March for my monthly diverse SFF read.

We are introduced to three main characters, and the chapters alternate between focusing on one of the three. Cate Collins, Jesse Hewitt, and Adeem Khan are all in their late teens. Cate hails from San Francisco, and has spent her life caring for her schizophrenic mom. Adeem lives in Carson City, and is more obsessed with his amateur radio hobby than doing his school work – much to his parents’ dismay. Jesse lives in Roswell, where he and his mom are barely scraping by.

Earth translates a signal discovered in space, and learns that a race from another planet – which humans name Alma – is putting humanity on trial, and determining its fate within the next seven days.

Much of the world devolves into chaos after this news sinks in. Looting is rampant, people trying to escape cities cause major traffic jams everywhere, and cell towers stop working.

But within this chaos, many people also start trying to reach estranged family members or other loved ones. Cate’s mom tasks her with finding her father – who never even knew of Cate’s existence. Adeem sets out to find his older sister, who ran away two years ago after coming out to her family and fearing they would not accept her. As tourists flood Roswell, Jesse stays put, and sees this turn of events as a way to make some money off people who are looking for hope.

Jesse’s dad was a failed inventor, and even though he passed away years ago, many of his materials are still gathering dust in their shed. So Jesse builds a “machine” to send messages to Alma. People line up to send messages, and Jesse makes decent money. He thinks he’s lying to people, and ripping them off. But a new kid in town sees it differently, and thinks Jesse is giving people hope, which is the only thing they really need.

Inevitably, these three stories start coming together. (I don’t even consider this a spoiler – by about 20% in, you figure out that they’re all going to end up in Roswell.)

Most of the book deals with the issues these kids are facing, and the interpersonal relationships between them and their families, friends, etc. But there are interstitial bits featuring the aliens, as well. The friends I read this with debated whether this was really “sci-fi,” since it was mostly teen drama. While I agreed that the bulk of the book falls more under that Young Adult scope, I can’t say it’s not sci-fi when there are actual aliens in it. Those parts may be small, but still – aliens.

And I will also argue that most good sci-fi is meant to examine the humans, anyway, right?


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“Shatner Rules” by William Shatner with Chris Regan – Review

By: Angie Haddock


This collection of rules, illustrated with stories from Bill’s illustrious life and career, will show you how Bill became WILLIAM SHATNER, larger than life and bigger than any role he ever played. “Shatner Rules” is your guide to becoming William Shatner. Or more accurately, beautifully Shatneresque.

Goodreads


William Shatner has written several books – in both the memoir and fictional/sci-fi genres. I had found this one at a used bookstore years ago. It was written in honor of his turning 80 in 2011, and I thought the occasion of his turning 90 would be the perfect time to read it!

This one is not laid out chronologically, per se, but has some fun anecdotes. A lot of the fun comes from him name-dropping other celebrities he’s worked with on all his various projects. The overarching theme, if there is one, is that the guy – at 80, and probably to some extent now – keeps himself busy! There are few opportunities he says no to. (That is even one of the “rules!”)

As a Star Trek fan, there was one part that irked me a little. He gets into his beefs with George Takei and some of the other cast members from the Original Series, and none of that is new news at this point. He basically says that Takei – as well as Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, and Walter Koenig – were glorified extras. I think history and legions of fans might say they were a little more than that. I think it will surprise no one that Shatner has a huge ego, and holds onto his “top-billed” status even now.

On the flip side, one of his criticisms of Takei was kind of fair. He mentions that Koenig was the best man at Takei’s wedding, even though they aren’t really close, and that Takei milks his ties to the Trek world for his own publicity.

Shatner has nothing but good things to say about Sir Patrick Stewart, though, so there’s that.

Other anecdotes see him traveling, interviewing notorious criminals and celebrities alike, and recording albums with the likes of Ben Folds and Henry Rollins. He also talks a lot about his family, his horses, and his pride in being Canadian.

Overall, this book was an easy and fun read, very gossipy, and sometimes silly.


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“Firekeeper’s Daughter ” by Angeline Boulley – Review

By: Angie Haddock



As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal, eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.

The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, certain details don’t add up and she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into the heart of a criminal investigation.

Goodreads


I was interested in this one as soon as I saw the gorgeous cover, but the title and the description also added to my intrigue. My first reaction was, “This book has everything!” It’s YA, and from an own voices/BIPOC perspective. It has romance, sports, crime. There are other very relevant issues at play, as well, so let’s dive in.

Our main character is Daunis Fontaine, who is half Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) and half white. She lives in the Upper Peninsula area of Michigan – which is significant, as people in her town cross the Canadian border with ease. A lot of the action actually takes place on Sugar Island, which is in the river that acts as the international border in this area.

There is quite a bit of the usual teen drama here, including hating on exes and contemplating jobs/colleges. But Daunis has some extra weight hanging around such decisions, as her mom is currently taking care of her own mom after the loss of her brother (Daunis’ grandma and uncle, respectively). She has a complicated family history, in which her white side hasn’t always been kind to (or even accepting of) her Ojibwe side. She is close to her half-brother, who is a local hockey star. Daunis herself played, until an injury cut her hockey career short. She is still close to the players, though, both past and present.

She is also close to her father’s sister, who plays a prominent role in the story. Aunt Teddie is one of Daunis’ closest ties to her Indigenous side’s histories and traditions. Her best friend Lily, and Lily’s grandma, are also great windows into this culture.

The action really picks up after Daunis witnesses a murder. She hadn’t realized that the FBI had been running an undercover investigation in her area already, and gets roped into being an informant. The investigation is concerned with drugs being made and distributed in the area. I felt like this was another layer that made this book super relevant, as the opioid epidemic has affected many communities over the past decade or so. The effects that drugs are having on her friends and former teammates is the primary reason Daunis agrees to get involved. She questions her involvement often – especially as it involves not being honest with her family at times – but keeps coming back to the idea of helping her community.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot here, but there is a lot going on. Some parts are gut-wrenching. Other parts made me cheer. (The elders in the community are kick-ass on several levels.) This book definitely had a huge emotional impact.

There are some hard truths presented at the end that are very frustrating, but realistic. Not every strand in this story gets wrapped up in a positive or convenient fashion. That’s not to say there isn’t sufficient wrap-up here, because I think the author leaves Daunis in a good place, ultimately. But you will be angry at some of the injustices left bare.

I loved this book, even when I wanted to yell at it. There is a whole community of interesting characters, which feels a lot like the reality of growing up in a tight-knit community. The females are mostly fierce, which I’m all for. While the main characters are in their late teens, there are good representations of people of all ages.

This book comes out today, March 16th, through MacMillan. I was able to read an advanced digital copy through Netgalley. Also, it is already slated to be adapted for the screen on Netflix.


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“Sing Me Forgotten ” by Jessica S. Olson – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Isda does not exist. At least not beyond the opulent walls of the opera house.

Goodreads


This one was outside my normal, but I feel like it’s good to read things that are new and different. I’d definitely put this in the realm of fantasy, but it also had a historical/classic vibe. I mean, where else have we seen a creature hiding in the shadows of an opera house? (Several blurbs about this one have already called it a gender-swapped “Phantom of the Opera.”)

Ostensibly, this takes place in a fictional town that seems to be in France. The period is probably more than a hundred years ago, as there are guns (rifles) but people ride in carriages or on horses. These things are pretty similar to our real world.

There is a definite mythology built here, though, and it involves creatures called fendoirs and gravoirs. These look like humans, but they have deformed faces. They also have powers to either steal or manipulate memories. Fendoirs are allowed to live in society, although with many restrictions. Mostly, they serve an economic purpose. Gravoirs, whose powers are greater, are killed at birth.

Our main character, Isda, is a gravoir. Since she should not have been allowed to live past birth, her reasons for needing to hide are obvious. She serves a purpose at the opera house, though – she manipulates the audience’s memories of the performances to make them all great, and erase any parts that went wrong. This inflates the reputation of the opera house, and Cyril, the man who runs it. Eventually, Cyril calls on Isda to use her powers to inflate his own political reputation, too.

Inevitably, Isda meets a boy. Emeric is roughly her age, and she is initially drawn to him because he has a fabulous singing voice. (She was raised in an opera house, after all, so she knows a lot about singing.) Rooting around in his memories, however, she realizes that he also knows more about gravoirs than she does. This leads her to start digging around to learn more about her powers. Both the digging and the experimenting/growing her own prowess lead to various sorts of trouble.

Toward the end, Isda is eventually found out. She must race and fight for her own life and Emeric’s. The ending is destructive and bittersweet.

This YA novel comes out today, March 9, 2021. I was able to read a digital advanced reader’s copy through Books Forward Friends and Netgalley.


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“The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.

Goodreads


This was my diverse sci-fi group read selection for the month of February. The book came out last year, and was immediately on my TBR, so I’m glad I finally got around to it!

We jump right into the action, with no explanations. There is a fairly long intro section, and we don’t reconnect with the characters in this section until quite some time later. This really threw me at first, so I went into the rest of this book with a “just go with the flow” attitude.

The action all takes place in New York City, in the current time. So, that helps. Of course, this version of NYC is being attacked by an avatar/being from another plane of existence who wants to take the space over for herself. But, each borough of New York claims its own avatar to fight back.

We spend a decent amount of time being introduced to each avatar, and learning why they are emblematic of the borough they represent. Each one has some encounter that tips them off to the problem going on, and lets them know that they have perceptions and powers in relation to this (that not everyone else has). Then comes the realization that there are others like them, and that they need to find each other and work together.

The avatars are a pretty diverse crowd – Black, Indigenous, South Asian, multiracial – and some are also within the LBGTQ spectrum. Only the avatar of Staten Island is Caucasian, of Irish decent. The female avatars are all feisty and forceful, as well, while one of the male ones doesn’t have any memory of who he is.

As they come together, there are some personality clashes. But the biggest clashes here are with the enemy – who often appears as a white woman, but changes form slightly depending on who she’s appearing to – and the people she has under her influence.

One major clash that really struck a nerve with me was between the staff of the Bronx Art Center (where our Bronx avatar works) and a group of Neo-Nazis who call themselves the “Alt-Artistes.” The group makes art that they deem edgy and provocative, which can be exploitative of women and minorities. Their entire purpose seems to be getting these pieces rejected so they can claim they’re being censored, and flaying the censoring parties on the internet. Under the influence of the enemy, they take this battle into the real world and actually attack the Bronx Art Center, in addition to their online hi-jinks.

Even though this was written over a year ago, this really felt similar to the recent crackdown of the alt-right on Twitter, and discussions around whether or not that constitutes “censorship.” (Like real life, I think it’s sad that it had to tumble over into real world damages before anyone really drew some lines.)

There are many themes in this one that seem equally as current. The tone of the book is often fast, sometimes fun, and sometimes full of anger. The language is one of the most fun aspects to me, but might not suit people who don’t like liberal use of cussing.

I did feel that the ending was a little fast. Overall, though, this was an interesting and often fun read, full of very vibrant characters.


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