The Cover Made Me Read It: Dogwood Sprocket by Bokerah Brumley

It’s been a while since I’ve read steampunk. The historical aspect of the genre usually keeps me away. But when I saw Dogwood Sprocket’s pretty cover, I couldn’t say no.

The Story I Ended Up Reading. Cuz Cover.

Just look at the shiny silvery stuff. Just look at that top hat.

The Plot:

It’s the year 2287, and Grace York makes a living hand-crafting clever mechanical collectibles in an age of fast flying cars and soaring skyscrapers. Her life is interrupted when she is sucked through a mysterious portal created by Hugh Hawthorne, a clever inventor from a different time and a different, parallel universe. As Grace tries to adjust to the new, mechanical, steam-powered world, she finds herself falling for Hugh, a man who might be lying about whether he can get Grace home again.


Some stories make me angry. Some make me want to call all my friends to rave in delight. And some – the hardest to talk about – land somewhere in the lukewarm middle. This is that kind of story. Dogwood Sprocket is like curling up with a mug of tea on a comfy. It’s pleasant, cozy and sweet. It doesn’t thrill, but neither does it disappoint. It’s nice.

It’s a neat mix of time travel and romance. The first sparkle of romantic connection is instantaneous when the characters meet, but Grace and Hugh slowly and tentatively build their rapport over the full course of the story.

Luckily for Grace, her futurist career as a toy-maker and artisan is probably the only job whose skills transferred perfectly and immediately to a steampunk world. Grace’s independence is a lovely foil for Hugh’s cautious courtship as they navigate tricky issues like Victorian Era dress codes, a formal outing, how to get Grace home again…and what to do once she gets there.

Oh, and there’s a cute cat.

All and all, the short story is a nicely-crafted ode to the steampunk genre.

Canary verdict:

(A pleasant read.)

I received a free copy of the story for review.

More steampunk? Check out the following:

The Cover Made Me Read It: Master of Crows by Grace Draven

Here’s another cover that I couldn’t pass by. Crows and flowy hair. What more can you ask for?

What? Plot? Psh. Who needs plot?

The Book I Ended Up Reading. Cuz Cover.


The Plot:

Welp, on the one hand, you have the renegade sorcerer Silhara, reticent avatar of the evil god, Corruption. On the other, you have Martise a young slavewoman-turned-spy who’s been promised her freedom if she is able to find the proof of Silhara’s crimes that would lead to his execution. She’s set up to be his scribe and apprentice. He is all sorts of suspicious.

Inevitably, romance.

Continue reading

Best and Worst: Finding (a Red Tree at) the End of the World

Reading is an experience. I have fond memories of re-reading James Joyce’s Ulysses while sitting in St Stephen’s Green and the delightful coincidence of being introduced to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged while travelling the USA by train. Name a book I’ve read, and I can tell you about the when and where. Choosing the best and worst reads came down to choosing the best and worst reading experience, which is why I’m going to do it backwards. My Worst Read Ever is seriously depressing, so let’s get that out of the way first:

Feed by M. T. Anderson

In 2011, I read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction for my studies in Children’s Literature. Spending a year reading books about various ways the world ends and how we’ll be left rotting in a dystopian landscape definitely does something to a person. It was Feed that left me crying for weeks whenever I saw anything that even remotely reminded me of the characters and world constructed in the novel.

Feed is set in an eerie imagined future in which corporations run everything (including SchoolTM), advertising is everywhere – including in your head – and language is coming to… you know… that thing…

Told from the first-person perspective, it tells the story of adolescents in an apathetic world driven by consumerism. If you’re not a consumer, then what use are you to society? Titus, the main character, reflects that the power of the corporations isn’t ideal “because who knows what evil shit they’re up to? Everyone feels bad about that. But they’re the only way to get all this stuff, and it’s no good getting pissy about it, because they’re still going to control everything whether you like it or not”.

Which begs the question: at what point do we stand up and say “hang on, I don’t need this, and you can’t keep doing what you’re doing?”

As the world of Feed deteriorates, so do the people. Physically, their bodies decay – the severity of which is concealed through excellent media campaigns making it “cool” to have lesions. Emotionally, they struggle to express themselves as society gradually loses the ability to construct meaning through language.

Scared yet? Then you should probably get your hands on the book I’ve chosen as my Best Read Ever, instead. Continue reading

[Small Chirp] The importance of a socio-economically viable premise in dystopian world-building

Disclaimer: CanaryTheFirst was a pol-sci major. She did the title.

When SciFi loses the ‘Sci’

When the pull to finish a book is siren-song strong, I usually think it’s because I’m truly enjoying myself. That’s how the first Twilight book tricked me. Now I know that when I finish a book that quickly, putting some distance and time between me and it are the only way to tell whether the book was actually good (like The Hunger Games) or if my brain was so engaged in the train-wreck of a narrative that I couldn’t look away (like with Twilight). And now I find myself in the same predicament with Divergent.

On the one hand, I can’t stop talking about it. I just kept telling people about the premise. My roommate. My mom. Sometimes the cat when there was no one else around to listen. But I get the same reaction each time (even from the cat): that world just sounds stupid.

As I explained in my review, the world of Divergent is split into five factions, each favoring one aspect of human nature: Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (courage), Erudite (knowledge), Candor (honesty), and Amity (friendliness).  And that’s not to say that they tend to defer to that personality when times get tough. They eat/sleep/breathe it. To pick a faction, members of the Abnegation only wear grey, default to the other person in conversation and opinion, and are in charge of feeding and clothing the homeless. They display no other traits in public (or in private).

Mreeowl, said our cat at this point, and I had to agree. It’s a great and unique idea for a world.

But it is also flat-out untenable.  Human beings have a wide range of emotional potential by nature–and consist of every trait imaginable. That idea that we learned to live as single-emotion cells for generations on end? That we willingly chose to repress all emotions but one? In a world that’s otherwise almost exactly like our own? No, that’s a stroll too close to the far-fetched line.

On the other hand, Canary The First thinks I’m being elitist. Surely, if a book is an enjoyable read, then it is a good book on some level—you shouldn’t have to put time and distance between the read and the analysis.

To some extent she’s right. Divergent was certainly enjoyable; I’ve already recommended it to several people. But just because something is pleasant does not mean that it won’t nag at my mind until even the initial enjoyment is gone (I’m looking at you, Inception). If my brain has to shut down completely to enjoy the fun factor, then the book probably isn’t achieving on all levels.

So what about you, Canaries? Do you ever find yourselves wondering whether the author had done any thought experiments before writing a world? What other universes have dipped too far to the unbelievable for you?

[ Best and Worst ] Breaking Hearts and Breaking Heads

Writing about my best reading experience for the The Canary Review turned out to be tougher than I imagined (writing about my worst was much, much easier, but we’ll get to that in a moment). After giving it some thought, I decided to write about the one story that changed both reading and writing for me.

That story is Break by Hannah Moskowitz.

“BREAK is a story about Jonah, a teen on a mission to break every bone in his body. Everyone knows that broken bones grow back stronger than they were before. Jonah wants to be stronger–needs to be stronger–because everything around him is falling apart. Breaking, and then healing, is the only way he can cope with the stresses of home, girls and the world on his shoulders.”

What I love most about Break is its honest portrayal of a self-destructive teen. Jonah lives with one brother who has deadly food allergies, a baby brother who is consistently covered in deadly food, and well-meaning parents who don’t seem to notice. In less capable hands, this story might have become maudlin, but not once did the author let the stress of Jonah living with a chronically ill brother or distracted parents overshadow his emotional journey. Hannah Moskowitz lets the reader relate to Jonah’s choice to injure himself as a coping mechanism without ever having to play the pity card.

This book renewed my love of young adult novels. It reminded me how much I enjoyed reading from the perspective of a teenage boy, something I hadn’t experienced since I read The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton as a kid. Break set a new standard for me in my own writing and I’ve been a fan of Hannah Moskowitz ever since.

Oh, if every reading experience could be this good. But sadly, it can’t. Because right now, as you’re reading this, someone somewhere is listening to Holden Caulfield whine.

Wait! Wait! Put down the torches and pitchforks! Please, let me explain.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I am not suggesting that The Catcher in the Rye isn’t a stunning piece of literature–it is. I wouldn’t have had such a visceral reaction to it if it weren’t. But J.D. Salinger’s portrayal of insufferable teen angst just plain got my chowder up.

As a native New Englander who grew up less than an hour from where J.D. Salinger spent the last fifty years of his life, I can tell you that Holden Caulfield wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in any New England public high school anywhere. Even Connecticut. This kid is so emotionally pathetic he makes Edward Cullen look like Bill Sikes. There wasn’t a moment during my read that I didn’t want to reach through the pages to give this punk a chowda-fisted beat down and then stuff him under the stands at Fenway. And I’m a girl.

For those of you who are lucky enough not to know, The Catcher in the Rye is the story of the sixteen year-old Holden Caulfield, a chronically disgruntled prep school drop-out. When he’s not whining about how he thinks everyone around him is a poser, he’s moping about the fact that he’s still a virgin. Lacking the testicular fortitude to confront his parents with the truth of his sudden expulsion from yet another prep school, Holden checks into a run-down hotel and waits for a vacation to explain his trip home. While he’s there, Holden annoys nuns, is obnoxious to girls (and for some reason cab drivers), and is convinced that every man who looks at him sideways is a homosexual.

I will say that there was one redeeming moment in the novel. When Holden backs out of a deal with a prostitute he hires,  Sunny has her pimp beat Holden up–even after he pays them. I remember standing up in class and clapping for that one.

Fans of the novel will say that Holden Caulfield is technically from New York and that J.D. Salinger wrote this novel before he moved to New Hampshire but it doesn’t matter. When a kid is forced to live in a state where its citizens wear Salinger like a badge, you grow to resent being identified with the myopic twit that is Holden Caulfield.

In an effort to rid myself of my impotent “post-Rye” anger, I’ve decided to combine my best read and worst read into an uber fan-fiction graphic novel. In my mind I see pages and pages of my good buddy Jonah repeatedly laying the smack down on Holden for thinking he’s “wicked smaht.” Then Jonah stuffs him under the stands at Fenway.

Go Sox.

[ Series Review ] Patricia Briggs and Some More Wolves

We’re wrapping up our Patricia Briggs series with her second werewolf urban fantasy:

Alpha & Omega

After a vicious attack by a werewolf, Anna’s life has been three straight years of abuse at the bottom rung of pack hierarchy. But when Charlie arrives to investigate a series of murders, he realizes that Anna isn’t just a werewolf. She’s an Omega, the rarest of wolves–and his lifemate.

Reading Recommendation: Should be read after Moon Called, the first of the Mercedes Thompson series. Personally, I’d suggest reading it after you finish the entire Mercedes Thompson storyline, with Alpha & Omega as a holdover between then and the next MT publication. Is that a bit harsh? Well, no. For one, A&O starts out with less world-building than MT, and it expects you to have some insider knowledge. More than that, you’ll also appreciate the oblique references to characters and events from its parallel sister series if you start in later rather than earlier.

All that said, it can be easily read as a stand-alone if you’re looking for a lightweight paranormal romance.

On the Prowl: Novella

Of the three, I had actually read this last, not realizing that it was the opening of the series. The first book, Cry Wolf, would have made a lot more sense had I started with On the Prowl. As is, this novella introduces Anna. When Anna phones for help, she knows that whoever comes won’t be any better than the vicious pack she’s known for the last three years, but she’s tired enough to almost not care. So she’s not too surprised when she gets Charlie, assassin and enforcer–and an attempt on her life to silence the weakest link in the pack. But Charlie is more than that, and so is she.

I’d say this was my favorite of the series. We’re introduced to a strong heroine–a tenacious survivor who has a lot more sense than most urban fantasy heroines. In this sense, Anna reminds me of Rachel Caine’s Joanne (Weather Warden series) or Kim Harrison’s Rachel (The Hollows series). Anna’s character and troubles reeled me in, and the quick pacing kept me reading.

Cry Wolf: Book 1 

The happily-ever-after of the prequel has dissolved into uncertainty. Anna is free, but she now has a mate in a man she doesn’t know, a home in far-away-frozen-Montana with this aforementioned man, and a new identity as a pack Omega–whatever that means. But before she has a chance to catch her breath and Charlie has a chance to heal, they find themselves in the crosshairs of a thousand-year-old vendetta. Enter one witch, one broken love story, and one ancient wolf looking to die.

The romance element–and how well it worked–surprised me. Because the characters have only known each other for a few days when the book starts, Briggs uses the age-old trope of the soulmate bond to lock them together in irresistible attraction. This usually creates farce where there should be romance. But here, for once, the two characters are okay with the bond. There’s an attraction, and they both want to make it work and are willing to work at it.

What I didn’t enjoy as much was the action plot that drove the story arc. Everyone was too powerful for my tastes, and the final showdown was such that Anna’s Omega powers were, coincidentally, perfectly suited to saving the day. In that sense, the story was an indulgent paddle down the river, all smooth turns and no twists.

Read it for what it is; a sweet paranormal romance.

Hunting Ground: Book 2

This latest installment takes us out of the mountains of Montana: Charles and Anna are sent to Seattle for a werewolf convention.  Charles needs to pacify the werewolf pack representatives about the plan to come out of the closet to the world, and Anna is struggling to come to grips with the abuse of her past and the terror that rears its head now that’s she’s forced to deal with so many wolves in close quarters.

Once again, I felt that the book struggled to straddle two genres and ended up tottering uneasily between them. On the one hand, there was some adorable relationship building between Charles and Anna. On the other, the fact that Briggs needed to develop Anna into a strong woman who could do her own detective work forced Charles into the background. Indeed, for someone who was supposed to be the wolf in charge of policing all the werewolves in North America, Charles became a bit of a hogtied side-kick.

Plot wise, I had a similar problem with this novel as I had with Moon Called; there was no way for me to piece the clues together for the why of the whodunnit because, well, the villain doesn’t think like you or me.

Again, read this for the relationship between Anna and Charles. It’s adorable.

Upcoming: Fair Game (January 2012)

Tangent in which CanaryTheFirst complains about continuity: I have a lot of trouble swallowing the addition of an ‘Omega’ wolf-class. It’s everything a werewolf is, minus all the major disadvantages. I’d been looking forward to reading a story from the POV of the average werewolf. Anna isn’t average.

Also, how in the world had Mercy Thompson managed to grow up in a werewolf pack–the most powerful one in the country–and yet never hear of this wolf type called an “Omega”?

Overall impressions: I approached this series as less urban fantasy and more as a low-key paranormal romance. The focus is on the relationship, with everything else revolving around that. Indeed, the plot often feels…stretched. Enough that at times, I almost wished Cry Wolf and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Hunting Ground had been written as novellas too, rather than novel-length installments.

The entire series is written in third person, which, if you’re a Mercedes Thompson fan, offers a very different feel. It allows us insight into the minds of several characters, including the ever mysterious and powerful Bran. That’s another reason I’d strongly encourage any Mercy fans to wait until they’ve read up on the MT series. Because insight plays havoc with the mystery-that-we-all-love that is Bran and Charlie.

Paranormal Romance Recommendations:

  • Ava Gray: Skin Games
  • Karen Marie Moning: Darkfever
  • Charlaine Harris: Dead Until Dark
  • Ann Aguirre: Blue Diablo
You can find out what I thought of Patricia Brigg’s fantasy books in Patricia Briggs and the Flying Critters. Read about the Mercedes Thompson series here.