Review: ‘I Am Princess X’ by Cherie Priest

Once upon a time, two best friends created a princess together. Libby drew the pictures, May wrote the tales, and their heroine, Princess X, slayed all the dragons and scaled all the mountains their imaginations could conjure.

Once upon a few years later, Libby was in the car with her mom, driving across the Ballard Bridge on a rainy night. When the car went over the side, Libby passed away, and Princess X died with her.

Once upon a now: May is sixteen and lonely, wandering the streets of Seattle, when she sees a sticker slapped in a corner window.

Princess X? When May looks around, she sees the princess everywhere: Stickers. Patches. Graffiti. There’s an entire underground culture, focused around a webcomic at IAmPrincessX.com. The more May explores the webcomic, the more she sees disturbing similarities between Libby’s story and Princess X online. And that means that only one person could have started this phenomenon — her best friend, Libby, who lives.

I originally discovered Cherie Priest’s books over at Audible in the form of her historical steampunk zombie series, the Clockwork Century. (You can read the review of the first book here if you’re curious.) Sadly for me, after the third book, the series wasn’t available for me to buy on audiobook — I don’t know why. So I went hunting to see what other book series she had, and found (and was intruiged by) I Am Princess X. However, because the book includes comic illustrations that tell the story, I decided this was a book better read than listened to, and here we are.

This story is a fun mystery/thriller read, and the comic sections give it an extra something. They are beautifully illustrated by Kali Ciesemier, who drew a gorgeous Princess X. The book is worth buying for those alone, honestly — I loved studying them for the clues before reading on to see what May thought of them. And the investigations that followed were fun to follow along with.

One thing that was refreshing to see in this book is that it’s a YA with no romance. There is a male counterpoint to May, a late teen named Trick who helps her with the IT side of things, and I kept waiting for there to be a spark between them — it’s so common in YA that it was my default expectation, I guess. But I don’t require my books to have a romance sub-plot so the book didn’t suffer for it, in my opinion. (YMMV.)

The only thing that I didn’t 100% love about this story was that some of the decisions the characters made in the final confrontation confused me. It’s hard to say what they were without spoilers, but I think they made the situation more perilous for themselves than it had to be, and the reasons for doing so either weren’t clearly articulated or I missed them. (I did stay up very late finishing this, so it could well be the latter!)

Regardless, if you love a mystery that builds to a thriller-style climax, one with gorgeous art to go with it, then definitely check out I Am Princess X.

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Review: ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ by Becky Albertalli

When it comes to drumming, Leah Burke is usually right on the beat – but real life is a little harder to manage. She loves to draw but is too self-conscious to show it. And she hasn’t mustered the courage to tell her friends she’s bisexual, not even her openly gay BFF, Simon.

So Leah really doesn’t know what to do when her rock-solid friend group starts to fracture. With prom and college on the horizon, tensions are running high and it’s hard for Leah to strike the right note while the people she loves are fighting – especially when she realizes she might love one of them more than she ever intended …

This book is the sequel to Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and if you haven’t read that or at least seen the movie (Love, Simon), Leah contains some major spoilers for it. So, you know, get onto that. (My review of that is here if you need further prompting.)

Leah on the Offbeat was a quick read. Albertalli is an absolute star at writing dialogue. A lot of of this story is told that way, with less of a focus on the text surrounding it, and it really works in this context. (Especially with the nerdy banter — all the Harry Potter jokes! Aah!) But dialogue does make for a faster read than pretty much any other type of writing.

Leah, the point of view character, is such a contradiction of a character. She’s anxious and closed off, and it makes her sarcastic and moody. She can be downright nasty at times — I especially felt bad for her poor mother. And at the same time, Leah is a totally relatable teen who struggles when she’s presented with awkward moments and socially tricky situations. I’m not saying I endorse some of her behaviour by any stretch — and her apparent inability to apologise when she screws up is a thing she doesn’t really grow out of during the course of this story — but I can understand it. I can relate to it. I know I had moments like that as a teen, though I was never as cool as Leah is.

There is one scene in Leah that a lot of people find problematic, and I can totally see why. It’ll be no surprise from the blurb that Leah falls for/has fallen for one of the females in her friendship group. (I won’t say who, because spoilers, but it becomes clear pretty early in the story.) That friend is questioning her own sexulaity, and goes from “hetero experimenting” to “lowkey bi” to “bi” over the course of the book. When the friend tells Leah she’s lowkey bi, Leah lashes out at her — which a lot of people see as policing the friend’s sexuality, and as totally uncool. Which it is.

But here’s the thing. I found that scene a bit of a revelation, as someone who has thought of herself as “lowkey bi” for a few years now (though not in those words). Because Leah’s reaction articulated perfectly for me why I’d be concerned about getting into a relationship with a woman. What if I wasn’t bi enough? Would it be fair to her? I felt seen. And the fact that Leah’s friend actually comes through the other side in this story to find acceptance was really heartwarming for me. (Also, if any of my family are reading this, uh, hi?)

Anyway. More broadly, the rep in Leah is everything you could hope for. Leah is fat and generally not ashamed of it, but has moments — like when she’s chosing a prom dress — where it is rubbed in her face. Those felt super-real to me. There is also a black character who deals with racism, as well as Simon and “Blue” (real name withheld due to spoilers), the gay pair from the first book, and minor characters from other minorities. You can tell that Albertalli did her homework. (I don’t know what her background is, but no way is she writing Own Voices for all those different groups at once!)

As far as the non-romance part of the story goes, Leah is a fairly traditional “last year of high school in Amerca” story: chosing colleges, changing friendship group dynamics, prom. I think that works, though, as a backdrop to Leah’s story more broadly.

Overall, I’d rate Leah as 4.5 stars — not quite as brilliant as Simon, but still definitely worth the read.


Goodreads reading challenge – 2018 wrap-up

I love my reading challenges, both the Australian Women Writers one and the Goodreads one. They help me stay motivated and remember not to let all the shiny things in life — like the Sims — distract me too much from all the books on my to-be-read pile. (As if the wavering, towering stacks weren’t enough reminder to chip away at them before they topple and crush me to death!)

I didn’t do one of these dedicated posts in 2017; I think I was a bit deflated at the fact I missed my reading goals that year. But in 2018 I lowered my Goodreads goal (and then met the 2017 goal anyway, as you do), which helped. It was all part of my 2018 resolution of being kinder to myself. Also, I didn’t have to power my way through all those Sanderson Stormlight Archive books in 2018, which helped even more — I only read one, which I’d already started when 2018 began. 😉

So here are the books I read in 2018, with some handy statistics for my own amusement. I haven’t included my own books that I’ve read in the editing process — except for A Hand of Knaves, given most of that book wasn’t by me — because then Goodreads asks me to rate them and I don’t feel comfortable rating my own books.

  • More than 75% of the books I read were by women writers (or had at least one woman writer contributor, in the case of the anthologies). Most of that was Sarah J. Maas (five books), and a decent number of female authors by whom I read three books. I am nothing if not consistent.
    • 31% of the books I read were part of the Australian Women Writers challenge, which clearly had a lot to do with the preponderance of women in my reading overall.
  • I read 69% speculative fiction (see again re: consistent, and also, teeheehee), of which the top three four categories were:
    • fantasy — 29%
    • steampunk — 12%
    • urban fantasy and science fiction — 10% each
  • Format-wise, 52% of my reads were paperback or hardcover books; 31% were audiobooks; and 17% were on my Kindle. (That’s pretty consistent with the 2016 numbers. The TBR pile topple-over threat is less intimidating for the digital ones.)

How did you go with your reading in 2018? What was your favourite book (or your favourite top five if you’re like me and can’t commit to one)?

Oh, and if you want to follow me on Goodreads and see all my reviews — although I almost always cross-post them here — you can find me here.


My 2018 in review

HAPPY NEW YEAR! (Well, it is here — though maybe not there, where you are. And if it isn’t, why are you reading this right now? Bookmark it and come back to it later!)

Like 2017, 2018 wasn’t a stellar year for me on the writing front. Or at least, that’s how I feel when I think about it — but I’m measuring that purely against the number of words I’ve written on my current novel manuscript. I’m maybe a third of the way through, and have been for a month or more. Everything has kind of … ground to a halt.

Still, one of my two resolutions for 2018 was not to be so hard on myself when I fail to meet my goals, so — in that spirit — I’m going to go over my accomplishments for the year. There have been a few firsts in there, which is actually kind of exciting when I think about it.

I released two new books: Guardian Angel and Rheia

Guardian Angel is a novella, and it’s maybe a quarter of the length of Rheia, so the grumpy cynic in me says it’s cheating, but she can go sit in the corner and sulk. Aside from anything else, urban fantasy is my jam and my comfort place, and working on Guardian Angel really helped me when I got stuck on other projects.

On the subject of Rheia, I love this book and am very proud of it. A friend told me she thought it was my best book yet, and I quietly agree with her (even as this fills me with terror regarding the next book, ahahahahasob). If you haven’t already grabbed a copy and you love the ancient world, creeping doom and/or steampunk, then may I urge you to check it out? 😉

(Actually, I technically released three books, as I also released an erotica novella, Kiss of the Succubus, under my Tammy Calder pen name. If you’re an adult and not related to me in any way, you can learn more about it here.)

I had a story published in the A Hand of Knaves anthology

Being a part of a multi-author anthology is something I’d always wanted to do, so it’s super awesome to be able to cross that off my bucket list. This one was published by the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, and working with the editors — Leife Shallcross and Chris Large — was a joy. 10/10, would do again.

I was part of the Shadows and Spellcraft book bundle

Again, this is something that had been on my bucket list. This urban fantasy book bundle has fifteen ebook novels and novellas, including Isla’s Inheritance — and it’s around US$4 for all of that, which is great value. And, again, working with this wonderful team of authors was both inspiring and educational. Seriously, I learned a lot.

I went out into the world and did author-y things

Okay, that’s not the best summary in the world, but bear with me. I went to the A Hand of Knaves book launch — a real-world launch, not the online ones I favour — and met new people and signed stuff. I also had a signing at BookFace here in Canberra, and signed even more stuff (mainly copies of Rheia). Given I never organised face-to-face promotional events because the awkwardness it inspires in me isn’t great, this was a pretty big deal for me.

See? Photographic proof! (Also, check out my low-key signing pen.)

A resolution round-up

At the start of 2018, I made two resolutions (one of which I’ve already mentioned):

  • Do better.
  • Forgive myself at times I don’t do better.

Comparing 2018 to 2017, I can definitely check the first one off the list. The second one … eh, it’s a work in progress.

This year, I want to finish the sci-fi draft that I’ve been wrestling with for the last few months. I’ve also got another idea that I plan to work on — stay tuned for more as the year progresses. Beyond that, my resolutions are the same as for 2018.

Do you do new year’s resolutions? Tell me in the comments below!


Mini-Review: ‘A Hand of Knaves’ short short anthology

Rogues, thieves, pirates and ne’er-do-wells abound in speculative fiction. Sometimes heroic, sometimes villainous, often somewhere in between, rogues are as likely to steal one’s heart as one’s purse, and show little remorse while helping themselves to either.

So why do we love them? Because they’re imperfect, fallible, and even vulnerable under that carefully-maintained, world-weary exterior.

Rogues represent something we rarely see in our daily lives: ordinary people prepared to take on the “powers that be” by way of guile and subterfuge. But are they only in it for the loot, or are they–deep down–romantic at heart?

I have a policy of not rating or reviewing my own books (even over at Goodreads, where author reviews are a thing), but in this case I will, partly because I’m just one contributor, and partly because there are lots of awesome Aussie writers in here and I love to support Aussie fiction (especially by Aussie women, given I do the Australian Women Writers challenge every year). Also, in case you were wondering, I can’t profit any further from sales of this book — so there’s no financial incentive for me to lie. 😉

I’m honestly a little blown away by the talent on display in AHOK (especially because I apparently duped the editors into letting my story sit alongside the others!). There are rollicking space pirate adventures; beautiful stories full of slow magic and whimsy; time-travel and psychic tales that twisted my brain in knots; and vignettes that were gorgeously atmospheric and left me wanting more. There are LGBTQ+ and POC stories, too, which I always love reading. Oh, and one story that is told entirely in quotes from witnesses. (Literally just extracts of dialogue, but you still can see the tale emerge!)

If you can track down a copy of this anthology, please do. I strongly recommend it!


Review: ‘The Odd 1s Out: How to Be Cool and Other Things I Definitely Learned from Growing Up’ by James Rallison

Hilarious stories and advice about the ups and downs of growing up, from a popularYouTube artist and storyteller.

Like any shy teen turned young adult, YouTube star James Rallison (“The Odd 1s Out”) is used to being on the outside looking in. He wasn’t partying in high school or winning football games like his older brother. Instead, he posted comics on the internet. Now, he’s ready to share his hard-earned advice from his 21 years of life in the funny, relatable voice his fans love.

In this illustrated collection, Rallison tells his own stories of growing up as the “odd one out”: in art class with his twin sister (she was more talented), in the middle school locker room, and up to one strange year of college (he dropped out). Each story is filled with the little lessons he picked up along the way, serious and otherwise, like:

* How to be cool (in seventh grade)
* Why it’s OK to be second-best at something, and
* How to survive your first, confidence-killing job interviews

Filled with fan-favorite comics and never-before-seen material, this tongue-in-cheek take on some of the weirdest, funniest parts of life is perfect for both avid followers and new converts.

Astute readers of my blog will have noticed that this isn’t my usual kind of read. I ordered the book for my son for Christmas, and since I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of TheOdd1sOut YouTube channel, I decided to give it a read.

James is a cartoonist who does storytime animation — he has a relatively simplistic animation style that he uses to convey relatable and funny stories. I like it when my son watches that sort of YouTube content, because it generally involves less OBNOXIOUS SHOUTING than the Let’s Play type channels, and more, you know, stories.

This book is short (unsurprising given the target audience is middle grade children), and filled with cute pictures that perfectly capture the mood of the various anecdotes — the pictures are freshly drawn, not just stills from the original videos. And there were a couple of genuine LOL moments for me, both of them in stories that I hadn’t already heard.

But here’s the thing. I haven’t watched a huge amount of TheOdd1sOut, but the videos I have seen are the most popular ones … and those seem to be the ones that are included in this book. There were only two or three chapters in this book that I hadn’t already seen the videos of. If the ratio had been the other way around (mostly new content with a couple of chapters of already-used anecdotes), I suspect this book would’ve earned the full five stars from me. And I can see that some readers might be put off by that.

Still, if you’ve got a YouTube obsessed kid who you want to encourage to read more, or one who’s a fan of James’s, this book is definitely recommended. It’s clean, funny and kid-friendly.

UPDATE: My son loves that there are so many stories he’s already seen in video form. So maybe the publishers know more about kids than I do!


Four Reasons Sims 4 is Better Than Real Life — a Writer’s List

I’ve been a fan of the Sims series of games since the first one came out in 2000 (gosh I’m old), and in the last few months I finally caved in and got myself a copy of Sims 4. It is … just as addictive as I remember. To the point where, over the summer break, my son has ordered me to write for a minimum amount of time each day before I’m allowed to play it.

A friend commented that you can tell I’m a writer — I get just as much enjoyment out of creating characters and houses for them to move into as I do out of playing, and even though I try to keep them happy and healthy, when things go wrong, I think “Oooh, plot twist!” and keep going rather than reverting to the last saved game.

There are definite advantages to being a Sim, and especially a writer Sim, despite your shorter lifespan and almost-complete lack of free will. Here’s my list.

Authors who work hard will definitely succeed

Working hard and practicing your craft are obviously of benefit to a real-world writer, but they aren’t a guarantee of financial success. Self-publishing books doesn’t automatically open doors to publishers and critical acclaim, for example. (At least, not in my experience — not so far!)

In the Sims, on the other hand, my author character (named Evelyn Martin because that was the name my character had randomly generated for her in Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery — did I mention I suck at naming things?) was able to almost single-handledly finance the building of a lush house for her family. I mean, look at this house. Look at it!

View from the front

View from the rear

My son asked me sadly why we didn’t have a swimming pool. Maybe … maybe this is why he wants me to write every day?

A Sim can write a couple of books a day

On a day off, a Sim can smash out a couple of books and still have time for lunch and “woohoo”. Even on a working day, they can write one book. (Of course, a day for a normal lifespan Sim is roughly equivalent to a year for a human — barring accidents, they live at least 81 days, and yes, I looked that up.)

Plus you get the joy of coming up with hilarious book titles without having to write 70k+ words to back them up. (I love that part.) And when you tell a Sim to write, they can’t get distracted by the internet, or by writing blog posts about addictive computer games. They won’t stop unless they have to.

So compulsorily industrious

Death is sad but not always permanent

Speaking of Sim lifespans, there are ways to extend them via magical potions — if you keep your Sim satisfied, they can buy enough potions to effectiely live forever, barring accidents. They can also become vampires, which are, again, immortal (also barring accidents, like walking in the sun for too long because the game froze — I’m looking at you, Hendrick!).

But if they do die, then the author has a way to bring them back — if you write the book of life and customise it to a particular Sim, you can then use it to summon them from the grave. (I haven’t actually tried this yet so I don’t have a screenshot of that, but I’m pretty excited to give it a go.)

Also, dead Sims can come back as a ghost so you can shoot the breeze. And get selfies.

Spectral selfie of Evelyn’s departed wife

And the reaper is an alright kind of guy, not scary at all. You can chat with him once his work is done; I even had one Sim successfully beg the reaper to spare her adult son (the aforementioned Hendrick), so that was nice! And sometimes he hangs around for a bit after he’s done what he needs to do, which does demystify the whole “death” thing.

The reaper playing Sims after he finished “taking care” of a careless repairman

There are lots of inspiring things to write about

Aside from having vampires in the family, there are lots of other exciting occult things to write about, which is great if your Sim writes speculative fiction. Some of it depends on you buying different expansions, but some of it comes with the base game. Here we see Evelyn exploring a magical hidden glade through a mystical portal … and taking a selfie, because that’s how my Sims role.

It’s basically inspiration fodder for your Sim writer’s muse. And maybe for your own.

If you can turn the game off for long enough to write.


In case you haven’t seen it yet, Smashwords is having an end-of-year sale. All of my ebooks are heavily discounted – and some of them are free! You can find a complete list here (including my elf smut under the Tammy Calder pen name, so, uh, discretion is advised for those ones).