Review: A Song Below Water (Morrow)

A Song Below Water Review

I adored this book and the beautiful relationship between its two narrators, Tavia and Effie.

The story lines in A Song Below Water feel timely, but would have fit decades ago, too (with one exception: this YA fantasy is anchored to the present by Tavia’s devotion to a fictional YouTube star). Its themes are comprehensive: activism, fear rooted in bigotry (through mythos), racism, sexism, the drive a parent feels to keep a child safe from that discrimination and, rising above them all, friendship and found family.

Tavia’s voice is power—literally, when she uses her siren voice. But being a siren is dangerous, tied into the fact that only black women and girls have been sirens in recent times. Tavia’s throat burns when she suppresses her voice, but—according to her father—being outed as a siren is the worst thing that could happen. She’s worn down by a life spent wading through society’s fears, her father’s and her own.

A Song Below Water‘s other protagonist, Effie, is the antidote for all that, even if she can’t take it away. They aren’t really sisters, but now that they live together they might as well be. Oh, and she’s a mermaid. Not in real life, but she plays one at the Renaissance faire she loves. Effie’s love for it goes back to her mother, who was a performer, too, and since her mother’s death, it’s how she holds on.

She might not be a real mermaid, but it’s clear Effie is something. As the girls negotiate a sometimes cruel and frequently, dangerously misunderstanding world (same goes for their high school), their bond of sisterhood guides them through and propels the story line. That and the mysterious gargoyle that roosts on Tavia’s roof.

This is a great story, well told, and more. A Song Below Water is chuck full of lessons in empathy for non-black readers. Morrow does some of her best work in Tavia’s narration. “I’m not up for educating anyone on how many things exist that they don’t know about or support, even if we are basically friends,” says Tavia, too worn to explain when she’s questioned about why she watches hair videos on YouTube. And, later, “the only ones who seem to stand for Black girls are Black girls.”

The popular girls have magic to boost their charm, but Tavia and Effie have it all on their own. They read like real girls.

As A Song Below Water progresses, Tav moves ever closer to activism, and gets a big jolt forward when another young woman reveals herself as a siren. It gives Tavia more than one reason to join in, and more than one reason to be afraid. Yet, at the protest, she says, “I feel honest here. I feel like a battery being recharged. Like an orphan coming home.”

A Song Below Water is wonderfully crafted, too. The mystery of Effie’s identity—and that of her father—kept me turning pages late into the night (even when I guessed part of the answer). I had to know what happened to these fully realized characters. The story might be wrapped up a little quickly and neatly, but it’s not without heartache. For some of the characters, it will never be neat enough.

And one other thing: these are real girls on the page. (I can’t speak to whether their slang is accurate, but it did make me feel old, so there’s that.) It was refreshing. Tavia and Effie’s stories are crammed full of the ache of facing the world (and boys, and parents) as young adults. Their emotions and fears feel real and unforced, and their characters are never diminished just because they do something girly. They’re competent, confident, and capable of independently navigating the world, even if all the supernatural happenings are overwhelming them. They cry without looking like crybabies, without ever seeming weak.

Yes, they also care about their hair and poor Effie’s skin, but they aren’t made to look vapid or silly while doing it. They’re two teenagers taking charge, trying to figure out how to grow up and how to write the manuals for their lives, the way we all have to. Effie gets self-conscious. Tav braves the minefield of popular elokos who have it all. She also worries about whether she will be allowed to grow up because of who she is.

The romance angles are never soapy or sappy, only authentically awkward and sweet (or heartbreaking. In both cases, it doesn’t consume either girl’s life). Its characters could easily walk off the page, but it’s the bittersweet nature of A Song Below Water that makes its plot feel true. In that way, this is not just timely but a timeless story, with a universal message you don’t need to be young to remember:

True friendship is rare, and growing up, no matter who you are (or because of who you are), is no small feat.

Indie Book Spotlight: Daughter of Shades (Mercedes)

It’s time for another…

No book can be Sabriel. But fans of Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series may want to pick this one up.

Main character Ayleth is a fighter. She’s possessed by a shade, a wolf-like spirit named Laranta—and that happened on purpose. As a member of the Order of St. Evander, she shares her body with a magically, musically suppressed shade so she can battle other shades from the Haunts. But giving her shade a name, and even identifying Laranta as female, is forbidden by the Order. In fact, young Ayleth’s bordering on heresy.

Ayleth, like her shade, is still a bit feral. She works on instinct, even after years of training under her mistress in a woodsy outpost. But she’s incomplete in other ways, too: Ayleth has no memory of her life before she was joined by Laranta. She knocks on the door of those memories from time to time, but no dice.

What she really wants is a post of her own. She wants to get out of her tiny, safe-ish world. It’s a classic story with an intriguing twist, thanks to its fantastic world building.

Better than just romance: Ayleth finds rivalry and curse-breaking smooches along her speculative journey.

Daughter of Shades really gets moving around chapters six and seven. Ayleth’s story benefits from new, long-term characters, who bring out qualities other than those in her defiant-teen dynamic with her mistress. Her newly independent status also comes with a touch of romance—thankfully, not too much, thought it threatens to be at first. Poor Ayleth never sees men outside her work, and she’s more than a bit overly impressed. That portrayal is awkward, because she’s no starry-eyed damsel. I don’t think most readers would want her to be.

Fortunately, her story veers in a far better direction: a rivalry blossoms where a soapy romance might, and gives the story further layers.

There’s a fun nod to the Sleeping Beauty folktale in a type of curse, a unique magic system of different types of shades, magics and poisons, and pleasantly chilling settings. From a cursed forest to the unwatchable glimpses of the haunts, it has enough of a touch of horror to make a really good campfire tale, but still left me still able to sleep at night. (Yes, I’m that big of a scaredy cat.)

My one issue, which probably kept me from getting into the book sooner, is the way Daughter of Shades begins with the possessed body of a dog. It’s not for the squeamish or the animal lovers, but after the first few chapters that plotline is over. I did find it hard to read before that, and while the world interested me, I think the opener (which included a little bait and switch from Ayleth) held it back. The hardened venatrix she first appears as is an interesting gal, and it takes a while for the real Ayleth to catch up.

Ultimately, Daughter of Shades leaves readers with a lot to wonder about (not in a bad way), and the growing action in the last quarter or so of the book keeps the pages turning. Both things, combined with the unusual world-building, made it an easy call for me to keep reading The Venatrix Chronicles.

(And to be honest, I’ll be waiting to see how that romance comes along, too…but don’t spread that around.)

Sure, you can find better writing out there, but that’s no guarantee it can build interest and suspense like this book. Ayleth’s spirited adventures are worth tagging along for—and sometimes, a person just needs a good (slightly!) scary story, with or without the campfire.

Indie Book Spotlight: Spindle (Gingell)

Today we slap a well-deserved gold star on…

Spindle Review Graphic

Spindle, by W.R. Gingell (Two Monarchies Sequence Book One, 2015, New Adult Fantasy/Fairy Tales/Romantic Fantasy).


Do you like fairy tale re-tellings, in which the original story is folded, spindled (ha!) and mashed into the unrecognizable and unique origami shapes of a drowsy heroine pretending to be the legendary sleeping princess people think she is, a little boy pretending rather convincingly to be a dog, an absent-minded wizard not even pretending to be listening (whose catchphrase might as well be “Huh. That’s interesting”), a malignant magical cube on a battlefield, a village in the shape of a spiral that’s bent by a jinx and an obvious but slippery villain?

Phew. That was one quirky mouthful. Today’s indie book spotlight lands on W.R. Gingell’s delightful Spindle, a fun and absorbing retelling of Sleeping Beauty that resembles the original almost not at all, in the very best way.

The magic system of Spindle is thread-based and interesting (and also literally hairy), with three different types of magic, each rarer than the last. The reader is dropped into it with no explanation. That leaves us catching up with what cursed heroine Poly (the non-princess sleeper) is discovering she can do as she discovers it, and as mystified as she is about what her rescuer, Luck, does with his magic. And he isn’t one to explain. It gives the world an authentic feeling, and keeps the pages turning, too.

Warm, silly, creative and clever: Not every book can surpass its typos like Spindle can. This wacky and wonderful book deserves all the stars I can chuck at it.

It isn’t a perfect book, but don’t let that stop you. The grammarian in me warns you that there are more typos in this book than the other high-quality indie books I’ve reviewed. Hyphens are almost nowhere to be found in the entire text, and the writing at the beginning left me as fuzzy as newly-awakened Poly. But its almost lyrical quality and the twisted presentation of an old tale cued me that this was worth reading. By the end I was beaming, and also leaving five star reviews without hesitation.

This isn’t a book that leans on its fun settings and quirky characters alone, either: it’s as imaginative as a fantasy reader could ever want. I continue to be amazed by the way little aspects of the plot and world-building came together at the end. It was clearly well-thought out and cleverly executed. And it’s enjoyable. You’ll find serious stakes and fierce fights here (and a bit of violence), but no endless doom and gloom.

Poly is also a heroine who gets kissed awake, then slugs her disinterested smoocher. She continually demands her personal space, which helps the romance feel earned. And she’s not a one-man gal, either; she has a couple forays into youthful romances, and who she ends up with is never truly a given (although a pair of time travelers threaten to spoil the suspense).

Spindle has more depth than just a romance plot, too. More than one kind of love is integral to the plot, and Poly’s development: there are parts about female friendship and kinship where there could have been a solid rivalry, a melancholic side-plot about the man who could’ve woken her, and a growing bond with the boy-turned dog that is crucial to Poly reclaiming a life after so many years of sleep. All of this advances the plot—and presumably sets it up for the next book in the series.

Well-rounded, often funny, carefully developed, with unique magic systems and a dive in-able magical world, Spindle is a fabulous book. Get past the opaque earliest chapters and typos, and you may adore it just as much as I do.

Indie Book Spotlight: The Purple Haze (Einspruch)

A little preface: These are tough times for all of us right now, and I hope all of you are staying well or recovering, and getting by. Recently, I found myself self-isolating in that special limbo of “is this flu or Covid-19?” It was too late for a non-healthcare worker or first responder to get tested for either, so my doctor’s office said I’d just have to let the virus run its course.  And that’s when I read today’s indie book spotlight:

(Note: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

The Purple Haze just happened to be next on my reading list, and I couldn’t have landed on a better book. I was stressed, sick and anxious, and chapter one made me smile.  Princess Eloise and Jerome Abernatheen de Chipmunk (an actual chipmunk, albeit an anthropomorphic one) became a staple of my nightly wind-down routine.

But this is more than a zany, hilarious book.  Like Einspruch’s shorter work, The Wombanditos, The Purple Haze starts out amusing and the plot picks up steam as it goes, in this case replacing its endearing characters as its number one asset (which is no easy feat with such a funny, quirky and loveable cast). By its midway point The Purple Haze was getting very interesting and proved to be well-thought out, with a clever, neatly foreshadowed twist driving the action. And after that?

We have ourselves a page-turner.

The story follows Eloise Hydra Gumball III, princess of the Western Lands and All That Really Matters. She’s a shy homebody, hampered by compulsive behaviors and germaphobia referred to as her “habits,” and she’ll one day be ruler of their queendom, no matter how she–or her contrary twin sister Johanna–feels about it.  When a reliable court seer’s visions reunites Eloise with Jerome, her childhood best friend, the jester-phobic, quick-witted chipmunk becomes a peculiar choice for Eloise’s champion. Which may not be a bad thing after all, as Eloise’s short trip to retrieve her traveling sister becomes a massive quest, and Eloise is about to need all the help she can get.

Talking (or singing) horses might distract from the strong world-building, but while you’re smiling, laughing or shaking your head, it’s there all along. References to the other kingdoms, some of which will be important, are never forced, thanks to the fact that they are humorous asides. In one, a long description of the history and bureaucraticly hampered build of the Adequate Wall of the Realms sets a scene but mostly provides amusement: “[Eloise’s] reaction was the same as everyone else who saw it for the first time: ‘Yeah, that’ll do, I guess.'” But an entire chapter earlier in the story (chapter 8) centers on the travels of a disgruntled king, describing his kingdom, the purple haze and his other options to better his lot in royal life:

“Had he been a little more personable, Doncaster might have found a wife (or husband, he wasn’t choosy) from the royalty of the other four realms…So, yes, the Western Lands were off the table in the making-his-kingdom-suck-less department.”

You never quite know what will stay as a funny aside and what will be important.

And that works, because by the time Eloise and her retinue end up somewhere major, the reader already has a memory and impression of the place, which can then be upended at any time.  It’s not by chance that this story comes together so well.

All of this makes for a funny, skillfully told story that never lacks heart.  Einspruch’s greatest trick, however, is crafting a book that becomes so much to the reader, yet leaves them wanting more–without being the slightest bit disappointed.

Like Jerome’s prognostication says, “you’ll be happy about it.”

YA books that changed the game (#2 of 9)

Did you see?  I have a mailing list now!  It’s right there, in the sidebar!  (Or maybe below, if you’re on a mobile device).  Now, without further ado…

Today’s YA novel that shaped me and countless others in the pre-Harry Potter days is 1995’s Sabriel.

Sabriel Review

In high school, I had a wonderful English teacher.  No matter how much you disliked a book from the summer reading list or complained about it with your classmates, you left her class appreciating that book.  Then there were the non-reading list books you read for fun, that you’d prefer to spend your time with instead and couldn’t wait to get back to.

Sabriel is in both those categories for me.

As a kid voraciously reading it, I loved the interesting world with just enough horror to creep me out but not keep me up at night.  A disdainful talking cat?  A magic book?  Yes, please!  It was unlike anything I’d ever read.  But that was where the trouble started: the ending.

Without spoilers, I will say that I read to the end, a part I usually savor, and thought, What?!  That’s it?!

It was so abrupt, it left me feeling cheated after all that excitement.  But that was the thing: I’d never read a book that didn’t wrap things up pretty neatly at the end.  I didn’t know where the characters ended up, if they ended up together, how things worked out…no happily ever after, or ever after mentioned at all.

To top things off, the sequel, Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr (I think that was the original title) didn’t come out when expected.  I kept searching each time I went to the bookstore, because young people didn’t and probably couldn’t look for books on the internet then, you see, and each time nothing was there except Sabriel and Shade’s Children.  Where was it?!  What happens next?!!!!

And that, right there, was the mark of an excellent book.  For all my grumbling I wanted more, perhaps because of the way it ended but mostly because of the experience of reading it as a whole.  I loved Sabriel.  I still think of it as one of my favorite books, because of the book itself and because it changed reading for me.  Even for a Goosebumps fanatic (that link there is to the first one of those I read), it opened up a whole new kind of world.

Sure, there were some growing pains for me.  But Sabriel has stood the test of time, not just as a popular read and YA book of legend, but in my own memory.

Years later, I finally met Lirael and the Disreputable Dog.  And while that is one of my favorite books, too, Sabriel is special.  It’s not just the first, but one of a kind.

YA books that changed the game (#1 of 9)

Today, I want to take a moment to share one of my favorite YA books from when I was that age.  This is the first of nine posts about books in the Young Adult genre that changed me and countless other readers.

Talking to Dragons (Wrede) Review

 This is the last of four books in the series The Enchanted Forest Chronicles.  I actually read it before the others (apparently most people did when it first came out in 1985, because it was published first, as a standalone.  I picked it up in the 90s and was none the wiser).  Thanks to a strong attraction to the cover illustration and back copy (plus the other books in the series being sold out!) I ignored that “Book 4” business.  My mom bought it for me, and I read it multiple times.

The thing is, Talking to Dragons is great on its own.  It’s the only book in the series that jumps ahead to the next generation, though reading it first did spoil major plot points of books 1-3, which I then read like prequels.  I will always wonder what it would’ve been like to discover it right side up (you had to go out to a bookstore then, so I’m guessing the wait to get #4 was devastating).  But learning everything alongside the main character and having that element of surprise is worth it.

It all starts (finishes?) with Daystar, a boy living alone with his mother, suddenly discovering that his mom can use some pretty powerful magic.  I won’t spoil what happens next except that Daystar ends up leaving home on a great and perilous adventure with some odd new friends he finds on the way.  I laughed, I wanted a dragon (would give him some Jell-O dessert), and I kind of identified with the fire witch.  It was a wonderful world and story that invited me to dive in and join in my own way.

I recently found the series (I’m Kon-Marie-ing) in a Ziploc, tucked away in a storage container with many of my other treasures.  As I prepare to possibly donate my set of four to the library, I hope to be passing on my love of this series to others.  And getting a new digital copy, of course.

Indie Book Spotlight: Sunbolt (Khanani)

I’m trying something new tonight.  This is about to be my first Indie Book Spotlight:

Sunbolt Review

Sunbolt (The Sunbolt Chronicles #1), by Intisar Khanani (Clean YA Fantasy; 2013)

This one’s a fantasy, and would work for YA-readers.

Note: the author is soon to leave the indie ranks, though The Sunbolt Chronicles are staying in the self-published realm as of this post.

So what’s it about?  An ethnically mixed foreigner in a place where that’s a dangerous thing to be, where sinister government plots are afoot (plus those who are working against them).  The main character, Hitomi, dashes through a vibrant market, meets vampires and werewolves, steals to survive and rebels to live.

OK, so when I started reading this I thought, “Yeah, this is a good story.  Well-written.  Not really my taste though.  Why did I buy it?” Then I kept reading and found out.  Yup, Sunbolt was for me.  And I loved it.

Hitomi was a breath of fresh air, and Sunbolt and its sequel (Memories of Ash) taught me a lot about good world-building.  It was also a perfect remedy for the doom and gloom of other fantasy tales I’d been reading.

I actually had no idea the author was self-published until I reached the end (which did come too soon, but in a “Where are the sequels, I need them now!” sorta way).  Khanani, who will be traditionally published with a new version of her novel Thorn, writes clean fantasy, meaning her work contains suitable language for a wide audience.  Mind you, the monsters and violence in Sunbolt may scare younger readers and could be inappropriate.

Official synopsis:

The winding streets and narrow alleys of Karolene hide many secrets, and Hitomi is one of them. Orphaned at a young age, Hitomi has learned to hide her magical aptitude and who her parents really were. Most of all, she must conceal her role in the Shadow League, an underground movement working to undermine the powerful and corrupt Archmage Wilhelm Blackflame.
When the League gets word that Blackflame intends to detain—and execute—a leading political family, Hitomi volunteers to help the family escape. But there are more secrets at play than Hitomi’s, and much worse fates than execution. When Hitomi finds herself captured along with her charges, it will take everything she can summon to escape with her life.

That’s all.  Thanks for reading!

-CKB