Book Review: Black Ice by Julia Blake

Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

When I heard Julia Blake was writing a steampunk retelling of Snow White, I thought two things:

  1. “Steampunk” isn’t the first thing I think of when I think “Snow White…”


Julia Blake is a master at crafting intriguing but believable settings, and filling them with vibrant characters you can’t help but adore. With the Dwarvians of Black Ice, in particular, I fell in love completely and genuinely wanted to be part of their close-knit band. Completely humble-yet-swoonworthy Ronin, sweet old Arden and wise old Grein, lovable young Eli, no-nonsense Kylah, the lovely and talented Fae, brooding and mysterious Nylex, and the wise and cunning Greta… all so unique and well rendered, they came completely to life in my head.

So often with fantasy, it feels like more effort is put into the world building than the actual plot, but that isn’t the case here. Julia Blake excels at balancing plot and setting, giving the reader a strong sense of the story’s world without letting it overwhelm everything else. The Five Kingdoms was a fascinating land with a natural and believable back story, including the rise of the dangerous and power-hungry Contratulum and its surprising counterparts, which made for unusual and intriguing villains.

The twisting and turning plot kept me turning the pages, and I absolutely loved the low-tech meets high-tech sensibility created by the steampunk technology. It was all woven into the plot in a way that felt so natural and believable, it was steampunk in the truest sense.

If you’re a fan of sweeping fantasies, adventure-filled steampunk, ensemble casts, or fairy tale retellings, this is a book you’ll definitely want to pick up!

5 Things That Motivate Me When Things Aren’t Great

I hoped to start 2021 with a post about big plans for the year. The stressors of 2020 felt like water under the bridge, and I was sure things would be better. Then January actually happened, and my 2020 stress levels were back in spades. The good news is I had all year to figure out how to make progress even when I’m stressed out of my gourd, so here are some of my favorite tips. I hope they help you, too!

#1 Writing Space Ambience – One thing I learned in 2020 is that having a cozy, welcoming writing space makes all the difference when I’m stressed out but I need to focus. Sometimes just turning on my fairy lights and glitter lamp, putting a candle on the warmer, and turning on some soft music is enough to bring me out from under the storm clouds long enough to get some work done. Wherever you do your writing, anything you can do to cozy it up can help!

#2 Relaxing Music – I’ve always been a fan of putting music on when I work, but I only recently discovered “Cafe Music” or “Coffee Jazz,” which is soft jazz, slow or lightly upbeat, like you’d expect to hear in a chic modern coffee shop. There are many YouTube channels offering a variety of options. Cafe Music BGM and Relax Cafe Music are two of my favorites.

#3 Ambience Rooms & Ambient Music – Sometimes I need to work on a scene and soft jazz isn’t going to cut it. Ambience rooms are YouTube videos with themed music and imagery. Need to write a scene set on a stormy coast, a wizard’s study, or the great hall of a drafty castle? No problem! These videos rose in popularity because of tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, but they’re great for writers, too. Check out Michael Ghelfi – RPG Ambiences & Music, The Vault of Ambience, and Ambient Worlds. If you’re looking for relaxing music with a touch of ambient sound, channels to try are Cozy Autumn and Fantasy & World Music by the Fiechters.

#4 Writing, Planning, & Bookish Vlogs – There are days when things are too bonkers for me to get words on the page, but I still want to be productive. On these days I’m super thankful for YouTube vloggers who put together helpful, relaxing, and fun to watch videos. Writing tips, publishing advice, planner layouts and “plan with me” videos, book reviews, countdowns and lists… and get this, CLEAN WITH ME! I find these all incredibly motivating. Even if I’m not in a working mood, I can fill my head with all sorts of helpful things or just get a motivation boost. A few current authorly favorites are Heart Breathings, Writing with Jenna Moreci, Hannah Lee Kidder, WriteHollyDavis, and Author Brittany Wang.

#5 My Kanban Board Planner – This is the one I’m the most excited to share! One of the best things I learned on the Heart Breathings vlog (and a big hat tip to my CP Elle for first mentioning it to me) was about “kanban boards,” which in simple terms is a board that helps you keep track of the tasks needed to complete your goals. Sarra at Heart Breathings uses a dry erase board in three sections (to do, in progress, and completed), but I don’t have room for a whole board, so made one in an old Happy Planner!

I used a hard cover and three sets of the laminated covers. The inside of each set equals one board. The end result is super compact but does the job perfectly. I don’t have the post-its/tasks filled out just yet, but even just looking at it makes me feel motivated to get work done.

And that’s my first blog for 2021! Hoping to have a new “5 Things” blog and possibly a book review for February, so keep an eye out and have a great month!

Book Review: Knight in Paper armor by Nicholas Conley

Rating: ♥♥♥♥

I was intrigued by the blurb of Knight in Paper Armor, which promised a dystopian thriller with unusual characters battling familiar humanitarian issues and a villain that sounds shockingly believable in the modern landscape of corporate greed over human welfare. On that promise, this book delivered in spades. The story and setting were imaginative and compelling, and the two main characters were unique and well rendered. It’s so unusual to read about a Jewish protagonist outside of historical fiction, and even more unusual in speculative fiction, so that added many interesting layers to the story. It was fascinating to learn as the author shared details from his own cultural background, explored the lasting cultural trauma of the Holocaust, and also examined shared themes and parallels between the treatment of Jewish Americans and Latinx immigrants.

While I enjoyed the premise, setting, and characters, some of the prose lacked the oomph I was hoping for and I struggled with the dialogue, which didn’t feel natural to me. There was a lot of “man,” “bro,” “dude,” and “like,” even from small children, which consistently pulled me out of the story. There were some logic disconnects for me as well, but that’s on me, not the author. Overall, I thought this was a really different, fascinating take on one version of a future that could await us if we don’t decide to put humanity before greed.

Indie Book Review: The Ruin of Delicate Things by Beverly Lee

Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

I have a love/hate relationship with scary stories. I love the “right ones,” but I’m terribly picky about what fits the bill for me. I prefer a good ghost story with a bit of psychological thrill as opposed to slash and gore. I like the creatures of dark fantasy, but evil faeries or elves alone aren’t enough to chill my bones. When Beverly Lee first revealed the cover for this book last spring, I knew I was going to save it to read during October. I started it a few days into the month, planning to read slowly and savor it until Halloween by sticking to two chapters a day. Right from the start I had trouble limiting myself, and before long two chapters a day became three, and then four, until finally I inhaled the last 100 pages between yesterday and today–and I’m a really slow reader, so anything that has me reading into the double or triple digits in one day has to be an engrossing book.

If I could have custom built my ideal scary story, this would probably be it. I can’t think of anything it’s missing or that I would change to make it more perfect for me. I got my isolated English village hiding dangerous secrets, an ominous forest where there’s always something watching, a haunted house that made The Overlook Hotel look like a charming bed and breakfast, ghosts that genuinely made me skittish in the dark, and an antagonist straight out of dark fantasy yet nightmarishly real. There was imagery in this book that gave me goosebumps while raising the hair on the back of my neck, and that’s not something I experience often in books.

The story centers around a struggling couple, reeling from an unspeakable tragedy. One half of the couple is unknowingly harboring secrets of yet another tragedy–one in which he was to blame–and he unwittingly throws himself and his wife back into the middle of things, opening them up to the pull of a crumbling country house that harbors tragic secrets of its very own, including the tragedy that set these wheels in motion. The house and its inhabitants know Dan’s childhood secrets, and there will be a price to pay.

The Ruin of Delicate things has beautiful, vivid prose and stunning description, enthralling characters that will make your heart ache, and a story that will stay with you even after you finish the book. It’s still twelve days until Halloween. If you like scary stories, do yourself a favor and take your first shaky step into Barrington Hall…

living the backstory of my novels

I write post-collapse fiction.

Never in a million years would I have expected to get such an up-close, horrifying, and fascinating look into the backstory of one of my novels.

“I remember the exact moment when I knew nothing would ever be the same.”

That was one of many possible opening lines for my first post-collapse story, written in 2009 as part of a NaNoWriMo-inspired challenge. At the time, the world felt very unsettled to me (OH, my sweet summer child…) and writing about what comes next was both therapeutic and reassuring. Writing about a possible salvaged future worked so well for me, it became the thing that I write.

Since then, I’ve written nine other novels, though I’ve only published one, Ashes Swept. All of them take place in societies that rose up from the metaphorical ashes of our current world. Since my stories are about those societies, and more importantly the people who live in them, I don’t dwell on what led the world as we know it to end. It’s usually climate change, political upheaval, a virus, or sometimes a combination, but I always figure it out before I start writing, even if it doesn’t play a role in the actual story.

As a result, I’ve spent an absurd amount of time researching virus events and global pandemics, so it’s pretty strange to actually be experiencing one. And even though I have every faith our society will survive Covid-19, it’s remarkable to feel like I’m living through an event that could well be the backstory in some of my novels. It’s completely surreal, to be honest, and I think that’s probably my biggest takeaway…

Writers of speculative fiction are supposed to look at the “what if” scenarios. We’re supposed to take the implausible and make it seem plausible, but if you’d come to me a year ago with our present situation, I would have thought it was pretty far out there. It would have been easy to poke holes in the idea that entire nations could be shut down, that movie theaters would go dark the world over, Disney parks would be closed for any number of weeks, and everyone in the world would be under “stay at home orders” while memes about running out of toilet paper became a global in-joke. “Interesting, but pretty unlikely…” I probably would have said. It’s funny how drastically things can change, and how quickly the implausible can become our reality. At the moment, I’m not sure anything would surprise me.

In a time when everything feels uncertain, one thing I know for sure: I’ve sure got a new appreciation for the backstories that lead to the worlds in my stories.