Travel Time: Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Travel Time: Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Ahh, let’s skip on over to some of my favorite memories of Cambodia: Sihanoukville. Sihanoukville is a small coastal city that I imagine has been built up quite a bit more in the last two years. At the time, Sihanoukville estimated over a million tourists hitting its beaches every summer and that number was growing exponentially every year. I posted a short blog about Sihanoukville back in 2016.

Sihanoukville was our last hurrah together as once the weekend was over our Thailand teachers would be departing for their teaching country and we who were going to China and Vietnam would be heading back to Phnom Penh for another week before we’d be on our way, too.

We stopped a couple of times for food breaks and at a small roadside stand we all got to experience squatty potties for the first time. We got some interesting snacks and listened to some caged birds sing before piling back in and heading down to Sihanoukville. The roads were paved so we didn’t get as wild of a ride, but it was still fun.

I don’t really remember the hostel we stayed at in Sihanoukville, I know we were only a two-minute walk from the beach and it was across the street from a tattoo parlor. But that is really all I remember.

The first full day we were there we went island hopping. Sihanoukville is a great launch point for the many tiny islands off the coast of Cambodia, each one more beautiful than the next. I always get seasick the first fifteen minutes I’m on a boat; so I zoned out staring at the ceiling for a bit waiting for my stomach to settle. But the sun was warm and the water mostly placid and it was a delight.

We had lunch on the beach, staring out at the water, watching the waves come in. After that I wandered away from the group and found a private stretch of beach and breathed alllllllll the stress away.

The next morning, I got up early, just about sunrise, and headed back down to the beach. I walked down the dock and found a nice view of the sun coming up over the trees and the fishing boats moored in deeper water. I did some writing and enjoyed the breeze before heading back into the heart of town to grab some breakfast. I ran into one of the other women and we sat at a small café open to the breeze and got our coffees and some crepes and talked a bit about the future before we caught up with more of the group heading down to the beach.

Our last day was a half day and we spent it lounging in the sun and enjoying the warm water.

It was a nice send off for everyone who was heading to Thailand. My next stop after a little paradise break: China.

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Book Review: The Diabolic by S.J. Kincaid

Book Review: The Diabolic by S.J. Kincaid

The Diabolic

By S.J. Kincaid

YA, Science Fiction

A Diabolic is Ruthless.

A Diabolic is Powerful.

A Diabolic has a single task: Kill in order to protect the person you’ve been created for.

Nothing else.

For Nemesis, that person is Sidonia, heir to the galactic Senate. The two grew up side by side, and there’s no one Nemesis wouldn’t kill to keep her safe. But when the power-mad Emperor summons Sidonia to the Imperial Court as a hostage, there is only one way for Nemesis to protect Sidonia.

She must become her.

Now one of the galaxy’s most dangerous weapons is masquerading in a world of corrupt politicians and two-faced Senators’ children, and Nemesis must find within herself the one thing she’s been told she doesn’t have—humanity. With the Empire beginning to fracture and rebellion looming, that could be the one thing that saves her and the Empire itself.

oOo

The writing in Diabolic is A+. But I couldn’t really lose myself in this book. The premise of Diabolics themselves make me a little itchy. The first chapter we meet Nemesis. She’s kept in a cage, like an animal, and Sidonia’s family comes through and chooses her like a puppy at a pet shop. She’s then taken to a laboratory and she’s introduced to Sidonia and *waves hands vaguely* science happens. But the important part is that whatever they do to Nemesis—grow her frontal lobe?—she cannot not love Sidonia. The entire premise of the Diabolics is that they don’t have a choice in these people they are bonded to. People come through and chose them and Science and then they are pair-bonded for life to this person and that never changes. Nemesis has no choice but to love Sidonia, to want to die for her to keep her safe, not because they are friends or lovers or have any sort of intimate bond, but because she has to.

So Diabolics are test tube grown, genetically modified, People who are trained and treated like animals and then when someone comes through and picks them out they are forced to love whoever is put in front of them. They are slaves and they have no choice in their lives nor in their deaths. Nemesis is fully aware that she exists only to keep Sidonia alive and healthy, but all of that is underscored by the “love” she has for Sidonia.

And I just can’t get behind any of that.

But I read through Diabolic really hoping that we’d hit a turning point that would make the first few cringe chapters pay off and…no. There’s an effort made to…do…something? There’s a sci-fi version of a dog fighting gambling ring with genetically modified animals that fight to the death for the Senators’ kids, and Nemesis feels a kinship with them but that’s as far as it goes.

It all feels very clumsy. Like, you can tell the author is trying to make this a story of love and triumph, but the whole issue of Diabolics themselves is never touched on. And it never shakes that itchy cringe feeling of the first chapters. Nemesis is a slave. She is a person who is treated as a thing, an animal, a dog. And I’m just not here for it.

There is a second book called Empress and maybe it does more to fix the issues laid out in Diabolic, but, personally, I’m not invested enough in the story to find out. The Diabolic is a well written book from a technical perspective, I just did not like how the portrayal of slavery, love, and personhood were presented. We all have our hills to die on. While I personally could not recommend The Diabolic, there are plenty other reviewers that say it’s a great read.

If you’d like to give it a go, you can find it at:

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

And learn more about the author: S.J. Kincaid

Travel Time: Killing Fields

Travel Time: Killing Fields

So this post is about the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh. I’m not posting any pictures because, honestly, I can’t stand to go through them again, but the one I did one back in 2016 has nothing but photos because at the time I couldn’t fathom trying to put into words everything I saw and felt there. This place still haunts me—as I think it does anyone who’s ever been—and I still maintain that there is no way to ever describe what the Killing Fields are. But, two years removed I know that Western-centered education leaves vast swaths of blankness about the rest of the world and there’s probably people who saw that first post and were horrified but didn’t delve any further into the Khmer Rouge or the Killing Fields.

The Khmer Rouge was the name given to the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia. They were in power for only four years; 1975-1979. I don’t think I ever mentioned how recent the Khmer Rouge was in any of my previous posts. This is something that happened well within living memory, to the point that if your parents had watched the BBC they might’ve seen something about it on the news. It’s that recent. The leader of the Khmer Rouge was a man named Pol Pot. Now, I knew about Pol Pot before I went to Cambodia, because at one point I read a lot about serial killers and crimes against humanity. But even the book I read only briefly mentioned Pol Pot. He didn’t kill as many people as Stalin or Hitler so he was more like a footnote.

Which is pretty messed up. How many millions of people does someone have to kill before they’re worthy of the same level of psychological dissection and obsession as Stalin and Hitler?

After the Khmer Rouge came into power in ’75, they forcibly evacuated all major cities in Cambodia. Why? Pol Pot wanted to create an agrarian socialist society. An agrarian socialist society is, essentially, a farm-based economy. There was no need for technological or educational revolutions or research because everyone was going to live life simply and happily on farms, living off the land, sharing what they grew. People were forced into Collective Farms, which is exactly what it sounds like. Communal farms where people were used as slave labor in fields.

Anyone who disagreed with this idea was promptly labeled an “elitist” and killed. Most of the people labeled as “enemies” of the Khmer Rouge were educated people. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, anyone with a college degree. Pol Pot himself was college educated and had spent time abroad in France which is where he’d been introduced to the idea of Marxist and Lenin communism. He was also paranoid, delusional, and narcissistic.

Between the mass killing of his “enemies” malnutrition and horrid living conditions on the Collective Farms, 1.5-3 million people died out of a population of 8 million. 25% of Cambodia’s population at the time. The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh are the most famous, but there are more all over the country and the set up is very similar to that of German concentration camps. People were rounded up and driven to the camps, bound and gagged. Once they arrived they were stripped of all personal belongings and clothes. Mass pits were dug, people—not always soldiers—killed the victims with things like scythes and saws, they used bayonets and axes and dumped the bodies into the pits before covering them with DDT so if anyone managed to survive being hacked at with an axe, the DDT would suffocate them. Infants and small children were swung against trees until their skulls cracked. Women and girls were raped repeatedly before being killed.

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge finally fell out of power and had to flee when Pol Pot attacked neighboring Vietnam and started slaughtering people there as well. The Vietnamese army quickly overwhelmed the Khmer Rouge forces and they fled to the border of Thailand. Vietnam established a new government in Cambodia in opposition to Pol Pot. But Pol Pot and the remainder of the Khmer Rouge stayed at their base until the 90s, still internationally recognized as Cambodia’s rightful government. Which is an insult I cannot begin to fathom. Pol Pot died under house arrest in 1998. No trial. Nothing but a slap on the wrist and a stern talking to for murdering 3 million people.

So that’s the history I couldn’t write about two years ago after visiting the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh. Writing about it even now brings back all those complicated feelings I didn’t know what to do with back then; horror, disgust, and the sharp edge of anger. Always anger. Because how many of us knew about Pol Pot? We spend weeks on WWII and Hitler but we never talk about how the Nuremburg Laws were modeled after American race laws. We overlook the fact that Hitler praised American genocide of Native Americans.

Pol Pot was an extreme xenophobe and nativist. He set out, much like Hitler, to “cleanse” Cambodia of minorities and religions he found undesirable or subversive. He tried to eliminate religion in its entirety like Mao Zedong in China. Mao is another one nobody every fucking talks about. But we’ll get to that in the China posts. Or, you can look him up now and fill in some of those blind spots our Western-centric education leaves us with.

Travel Time: Siem Reap

Travel Time: Siem Reap

Okay, let’s talk Siem Reap! I still cannot get over the bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, in 2016 it took about seven hours and maybe 10% of the way was paved. Now, according to my friend still living in Phnom Penh, the roads are all paved and it takes about four hours.

That bus was like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. We hit bumps in the road that got us all airborne, we had to wait for cows, we barreled through construction zones, zipped by school kids walking home. The driver always laid on the horn any time we approached a small town, like a train announcing its arrival, and only used the brakes sporadically. Like, if there was a cow in the road. I did post about our weekend trip to Siem Reap back in 2016, here and here and here. Those posts give a more thorough play-by-play of our trip, this one is more for pictures.

Now that I’m a little more travel experienced, I can’t believe I thought the Sunrise Tour would be a quiet affair. I go back and read those posts sometimes and laugh at the expectations I had for things. I’ve learned to travel without expectations, or as close as I can get to none, so I don’t get boxed in with what I think should happen versus enjoying all the detours and side trips that make travel so much fun. I still enjoy things off the beaten path, but the tourist traps have their place as well. Not the over priced food, but the things they offer that can make your experience all the more interesting.

I will admit I’d like to shake past me for being above getting a picture with Bon May, he was such a sweet horse and that was the coolest thing ever. If you have a chance to get to Angkor Wat and ride a horse around a temple, pay the man and get a cool goddamn picture of yourself on a horse in front of said 1100 year old temple.

Anyway.

Gods, I had so much fun scurrying through these temples. The art and the sheer age of these places is still awe-inspiring. That little temple in the center courtyard of Angkor Wat where I took a nap I can now say reminds me a lot of the serenity the Shinto shrines instilled in me while I was in Japan. Something about that little place was special. Couldn’t put into words exactly what it was, but it was like that one courtyard was in a bubble, set apart from the tour groups and pictures and everything else happening in Angkor Wat.

And Bayon Wat, what a gorgeous place. I don’t think I mentioned the bats that lived in the entry way. I don’t know how they got any sleep with all the people passing under them. The stone work at Bayon, I think, was more ornate than even Angkor Wat. In hindsight, Bayon is my favorite of the temples. That was a place where it was easy to imagine busy streets and vendors and people going about their lives while the jungle rose up in the distance. Even crowded with people it didn’t feel rushed like Angkor Wat. We were only there for an hour or two, but it felt like we had all the time in the world to look around.

The walk to the jungle temple, Banety Kdei, is where I learned a fascinating bit of trivia. Do you know why Westerners shake hands? To show you’re not holding a weapon. Most people are right handed, that’s why we shake with the right. In most Asian countries, greetings are with a bow or clasped hands to show honor and respect. I don’t remember why Hour (pronounced Ohh-ray, he was our tour guide) told us that, but I still think about it a lot. Banety Kdei, aesthetically, was the most pleasing of the four we went to, but I really liked how the trees were growing through the stone. I did like that it wasn’t as crowded, but it didn’t seem to carry that same sort of peace as Bayon. Banety Kdei felt more…impatient. Like it was mad it could rip up its foundations and go see how the world has changed since they laid its stones. I did feel like Lara Croft ducking through the passages and skipping over roots and I’m pretty sure at some point I was humming the Indiana Jones song. The jungle temple is probably my second favorite, just for that weird adventurous spirit it seems to carry.

The second and last day of our adventure to Siem Reap we went to Beng Melea, a temple set half an hour to forty minutes off the main track and buried in the jungle. It’s in the most disrepair of all the temples we saw, even Banety Kdei had more standing walls, and that’s the one they let the trees grow in. Albeit, more tourists visit Banety Kdei, so it could be a safety thing. Beng Melea felt…maybe not haunted but, disquiet. There was something almost feral about this temple, I don’t know if its just not socialized enough with tourists or if it would rather the jungle take it, but there was an air of caution around this ancient place. I still ran all over, but took more care than I might’ve if it had been Banety Kdei. Ducking through doorways, hopping over stones, venturing too far off the groomed path, it all felt riskier and I can’t explain why. They place was for sure falling apart, but again, I climbed walls in Banety Kdei that had only saplings holding them up and thought nothing of it. Beng Melea was…it was something. I wish we’d had more time there, maybe I could’ve sorted out the why.

Book Review: Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Book Review: Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

A Skinful of Shadows

By Frances Hardinge

YA, Historical Fantasy

Sometimes when a person dies, their spirit goes looking for somewhere to hide. Some people have space within them, perfect for hiding.

Young Makepeace has learned to defend herself from the ghosts that try to possess her in the night, desperate for refuge, but one day a dreadful event causes her to drop her guard.

And now there’s a spirit inside her.

The spirit is wild, brutish, and strong, and it may be her only defense when she is sent to live with her father’s rich and powerful family. There is talk of civil war, and they need people like her to protect their dark and terrible family secret.

But as she plans to escape and heads out into a country torn apart by war, Makepeace must decide which is worse: possession—or death.

oOo

You guys, I cannot get enough of Frances Hardinge. After Face like Glass her books are an automatic buy. A Skinful of Shadows is, thus far, my favorite of her books. I absolutely love the dark whimsy and bite of her worlds and characters. It’s like reading the original Grimm Fairytales in all their terrifying glory.

Makepeace is crafty, intuitive, trusting, and wary and is caught on the backfoot in the political game she gets tossed into once she reaches her relatives’ castle. Her partner in crime, James, matches her in wit and skill and—HAPPY DAYS—there is no romantic love plot! James is her best friend and Makepeace moves mountains to help him, but there are no true love confessions at the end. They continue on their way as best friends and it’s LOVELY. I am always here for platonic friend love.

Makepeace does spend the first quarter of the book doing everything she can to keep the spirits out of her, but when times get desperate, she starts looking for allies. The first spirit is a wonderful surprise, so I won’t give that away, but acts as Makepeace’s guardian and confidant and it’s the purest thing ever and I love it.

The other spirits she acquires are varied in their temperaments and skills and not all of them are super welcome at first. There is a great chapter where Makepeace picks up a male doctor’s spirit and they get into a scuffle over who can control Makepeace’s body. It’s rage-inducing and brilliant and I love the way it’s written and handled throughout the rest of the book.

There’s a lot of text and subtext on consent and body autonomy, not just life and death and life after death. This book is packed full of metaphors and just writing about it makes me want to reread it.

I really enjoyed the final battle because it comes down to Women Helping Women and Burn the Patriarchy and Eat the Rich and I stan for all of that. It takes all of Makepeace’s wit and intellect as well as the unique and everyday skills of her skinful of shadows to win the day. The best part about the win is that all these shadows Makepeace has, all these ghosts, they work together, not just to save themselves, but because they respect Makepeace enough as a person that they want to preserve her right to choose which spirits she holds inside her and her body autonomy. That’s probably the biggest reason I like this book.

So while I will always recommend Frances Hardinge, A Skinful of Shadows in particular is a phenomenal read and will do well on any bookshelf.

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

And learn more about the author: Frances Hardinge

Book Review: Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older

Book Review: Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older

Dactyl Hill Squad

By Daniel José Older

Historical Fantasy, MG

It’s 1863 and dinosaurs roam the streets of New York as the Civil War rages between raptor-mounted armies down South. Magdalys Roca and her friends from the Colored Orphan Asylum are on a field trip when the Draft Riots break out, and a number of their fellow orphans are kidnapped by an evil magistrate, Richard Riker.

Magdalys and her friends flee to Brooklyn and settle in the Dactyl Hill neighborhood, where black and brown New Yorkers have set up an independent community—a safe haven from the threats of Manhattan. Together with the Vigilance Committee, they train to fly on dactylback, discover new friends and amazing dinosaurs, and plot to take down Riker.

Can Magdalys and the squad rescue the rest of their friends before it’s too late?

oOo

Full disclosure: I will ready anything Older writes. His writing is so full of life and verisimilitude that even dinosaurs in 1863 being used as carriage horses is completely convincing. His characters are unapologetic in speech and behavior and appearance. Magdalys doesn’t have to go on a long journey of self-discovery, she’s ready to take the world by storm and fuck anyone who gets in the way. Magdalys is our main girl and right off the bat we have her asserting herself as the head matron tries to force the anglicized name “Margaret” on her.

There’s so much packed into these pages, we have that interaction with the head matron in the first few pages and then there’s the line about how it had just become legal for colored folks to ride dinos. So we’ve already set up that just because there are dinosaurs, not much else is different from how black/brown people were actually treated in the 1860s. I did look up whether or not it was illegal for colored people to ride horses in the 1860s and from what I can tell—I didn’t dive super deep into it—it wasn’t, but I did learn that early in horse racing a lot of jockeys were former slaves. In the 1880s as Jim Crow laws picked up steam they started losing their jobs and horse racing became the white-associated sport we know in the modern era.

But I digress.

You’ll do that a lot while you’re reading Dactyl Hill Squad, there’s so much stuff in here that you’ll want to look up and see Did That REALLY Happen? And Older has helpfully supplied an index of places and people and events he used as a jumping point for a lot of what happens in this book.

Back to the story though. Magdalys has a special connection with dinosaurs that, because she’s not allowed around them that often, she’s only just discovering when the whole world goes up in flames. Magdalys and her fledgling ability to communicate with dinosaurs gets her and her friends out of the heart of the riots overtaking Manhattan. This is probably my favorite part of the book. The kids are escaping on a brachiosaurs—brachy—with Magdalys in the driver seat and another orphan, Amaya, firing flintlock pistols at magistrate Riker and his Kidnapping Club. Meanwhile, literally, riding shotgun is a black Shakespearean actress, Cymbeline, who has a double barrel shotgun and is also blasting away at the Kidnapping Club and their ankylosaurses and raptors. It’s girl power to the Nth degree and I can’t get enough.

I will give fair warning that Older doesn’t pull any punches or gloss over what exactly it meant to be black in 1863 NYC, there is a lynching. There’s nothing graphic in the description, but it’s there. Personally, I think a white author would have had the character shot or simply disappeared or died in the fire, but the offscreen death softens the edges of things. These are black and brown characters existing in a time period when they weren’t considered human by a large portion of the US population. The lynching is a gut punch, but it’s truth.

I like the variety of dinos that Older brings to the table, too. It’s not just triceratops and t-rexes, we’ve got ankylosaurses, knuckleskulls, brachys, and some delightful tiny things called microtriceratops that people use as pets.

I said on twitter I was ready to pre-order the entire series and I meant it. Even if middle grade isn’t the usual thing you read, you can make an exception for Dactyl Hill Squad. I blew through this in an afternoon and I’ve been thinking about it for two days. I’m sure I’ll do another read through in the next couple of weeks because Older writes books that require more than one reading to really put things together. I’m sure there are things in this book that three books from now will become lynchpin information. It’s how he writes and it’s so amazing.

There is a character towards the end of this book that appears in his YA Shadowshaper trilogy, and I’d love to gush about him, but I haven’t decided if it counts as a spoiler. I know I about threw the book when he appeared, so I think I’d like to keep it as a delightful surprise for everyone else.

As always, you can pick up Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older at:

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

And learn more about the author here: http://danieljoseolder.net/

 

Travel Time: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Travel Time: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

So, I’ve been saying since I started traveling that I’d get photos up for you all to see and I’ve not been great at keeping up with that. But I’m going to get that sorted this year. So going allllllll the way back to 2016, we’re going to start with Phnom Penh, Cambodia!

 

When I arrived in Phnom Penh, I was flabbergasted by how big this city is. My current hometown has a population of 50,000-ish people. Phnom Penh has 1.5 million. As we were coming in for a landing, seeing this city stretch for miles was breathtaking and really set in what kind of adventure I was in for. This was the first time I’d undertaken an adventure of this caliber. Sometimes I feel like I’ve always been traveling. Then I look back at these pictures and I remember I really only started traveling three years ago this month. I’ve had so much fun and I’ve grown so much, but this picture reminds me of that first stomach fluttering descent into the unknown.

 

Cambodia has some pretty currency, I took some pictures of it because I’d never seen money so colorful. And maybe you haven’t either, so here you go!

 

 

The view from my window was spectacular. The hotel we stayed in was right by the main artery of Phnom Penh so I got a front row seat to watching the chaotic traffic. Even sitting in a room watching the tuktuks and motorbikes and cars and pedestrians weave around each other was thrilling. US folks, you may think no one in your state can drive, but I promise you we are down right regimented drivers when it comes to the free-for-all that is Khmer roads. The chaos is amazing. There are no crosswalks, you just look both ways and step off the curb cars or not. It is…well, it’s something.

 

Monday morning we got a tour of the city! I woke up sick as a dog and completely jetlagged Sunday and spent the whole day guzzling water and sleeping hoping I’d recover enough to be up and ready on Monday. It…mostly worked. I bullied myself through that day because I didn’t want to miss a minute! The end result is that I don’t have a lot of clear memories of this day. I remember we rode in tuktuks and I know we went to a temple and through the area where the Night Market is set up before finishing at the Royal Palace. But I don’t remember most of what was said. I do remember walking around the Palace grounds in awe of the architecture and also hoping I didn’t puke on the immaculate lawn.

 

The temple we went to was Wat Phnom and it was beautiful. I was still feeling a little spry when we got there so I roamed the temple grounds looking at the lovely architecture and the murals. It was humid but cool under the trees and it kept me from wilting.

So that was the first couple of days in Phnom Penh. If you’ve been waiting for the pictures, they’re finally here! Check back on Mondays for more stories and pictures not only from Cambodia, but all the other places I’ve been over the years and places I’m heading to next.

Review: A Touch of Gold by Annie Sullivan

Review: A Touch of Gold by Annie Sullivan

Touch of Gold

By Annie Sullivan

YA, Fantasy

After King Midas’s gift—or curse—almost killed his daughter, he relinquished The Touch forever. Ten years later, Princess Kora still bears the consequences of her father’s wish; her skin shines golden, rumors follow her everywhere she goes, and she harbors secret powers that are getting harder to hide.

Kora spends her days concealed behind gloves and veils. It isn’t until a charming duke arrives that Kora believes she could indeed be loved. But their courtship is disrupted when a thief steals treasures her father needs to survive. Thanks to Kora’s unique ability to sense gold, only she can find the missing items. As she sails off on her quest, Kora learns that not everything is what it seems—not her companions, or the thieves, or Kora herself.

oOo

A continuation of the King Midas tale from the daughter’s POV? Yes please! As a huge fan of Disney’s Tangled and Frozen, Kora reminded me a lot of Elsa and Rapunzel. She’s terrified of the powers she has and thinks they make her unlovable, but she wishes to travel far and wide seeing the whole world. Being cloistered in the castle most of her life doesn’t make her as naïve as Rapunzel, though. She’s aware of the rumors that follow her and assumes if anyone looks twice at her it’s because they’re either afraid of the rumors or they’re looking for a good way to exploit them if they’re true.

Kora’s kingdom is in dire straights when we meet Kora and her cousin—but sister at heart—Hettie. Wars have plagued the kingdom and since Midas’ brush with gold he’s been an absent ruler. Kora is now playing the marriage game to bring the kingdom back from poverty and give it some stability. She’s not super thrilled about any of this, and who could blame her. No one’s paid her much mind until now, because now she’s a useful bargaining chip.

I like Hettie, she’s got a short fuse and definitely reminded me of Anna with her blunt personality and initial haughtiness when we meet the crew of the Swanflight. But she learns to wield a cutlass pretty quick and falls right in with the boys. I think Hettie has an interesting story inside her, I’d love to know what she does after the book ends. She doesn’t seem like she’d be one to stuff herself back into gowns and corsets after their adventure. Hettie does tiptoe the line of being more interesting than Kora, like Han and Luke. The story is told from Kora’s POV and she does a lot of growing during the adventure, but Hettie gets into swordfights and cuts pirates down like she was born for it. Is that rage? Is it inborn talent? Did she watch the palace guards practice? I have a lot of questions about what’s going on inside of Hettie.

Our villain is Captain Skulls, so named because he likes to keep the heads of his enemies as souvenirs. We all have weird hobbies, don’t judge. Captain Skulls fits nicely into the mold of Disney villain. He is bad through and through, there are no glimpses of humanity or deeper character story. He’s there to chew bubblegum and steal heads. And he’s all out of bubblegum. There are other antagonists in the story, and they start off with the promise of a complex character arc, but once the charade falls apart they also become bad through and through. I’m pretty sure all Disney villains are sociopaths, has anyone looked into that?

When Kora sets off on her journey there’s a sense of urgency, the stolen treasures are tied directly to her father’s life, so the longer they’re away, the weaker he becomes and he’s already a shadow of himself. But there’s no real ticking clock, there’s no definitive “Get the gold back in a week or he’ll be dead.” It’s just every now and then Kora checks in and we get an update of him slipping away more and more. Still the time spent on the ship doesn’t hold a lot of urgency. She frets over getting the gold back, but she also spends equal time fretting over boys and Hettie being seasick.

I would say it’s the last three or four chapters will have readers turning pages fast as they can. There are a lot of twists and turns and false leads in this book and the end is a breathless maze. The fight with Captain Skulls is dramatic, but it’s everything that happens afterwards that really seals Touch of Gold as an enjoyable afternoon read. This being a Hyperion print, there’s no gratuitous violence, lots of the fighting is dramatic sword fights and off screen deaths, so if you have a younger reader who’d like to read a swashbuckling tale of King Midas, this is a good one.

You can pick up A Touch of Gold by Annie Sullivan at:

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

And learn more about the author here: https://anniesullivanauthor.com/

 

2019

2019

Of course the year I decide I’m going to keep this blog updated—goddammit—I head off and live in a cabin in Alaska for six months with 150+ dogs.

Okay, so I mean it this time.

Maybe.

I’m in limbo with a job in Russia and after two weeks and still no updates on my visa paperwork, I’ve put my hat back in the ring for greenhouse jobs in Indiana. So, we’ll see. I may be jetting off to a fun new place, or I might be hanging out in the States a bit longer playing with plants. It’s a fight to the finish at this point.

I will post pictures of the dogs I lived with because they’re too cute not to, but for now let’s get reacquainted.

Hello, I like to write. I haven’t written anything in…well, several months because every time I think about opening a word file and making coherent sentences I get really tired and it doesn’t make me happy like it used to. So this is me working through it. Writing does make me happy, I just have to remember why.

My favorite project, Rebel Love Song, I’ve set off the back burner and put on a warming pad because I just can’t keep up with how quickly we’re spiraling into a dystopia more frightening than anything I’ve written. I still like the story, but it falls flat compared to current events so I’ve put it in the backup hard drive and put the notebooks on a shelf. Maybe in a few years things will level out again and I can delve back into it.

I have other projects that could use some attention, like the urban fantasy Mage story that doesn’t even have a working title. There’s the cryptozoologist story and Fae Café and Charlatans, but I’ve opened every one of those files at least twice a week and I just stare at the words for an hour and then close it.

That’s been my writing life since October. I still have my fanfictions that I usually work on when I get into a rut with the original stuff, but even that is more of the same. I open the file, re-read what’s there, decide I don’t like it and I need to restart the chapter and then…nothing.

Writing is hard.

But it’s never been this hard and I don’t like it. Reading and writing are the two things I’ve always been able to do. And now it’s like fighting through quicksand just to get a character from the garage to the kitchen. I keep thinking if I read some more books that whatever it is will shake loose, or if I watch enough movies something will spark. But I don’t even want to do that. I want to sleep, but I don’t, because I should be writing, but I open the file and a whole lotta nothin’ happens. So I close the file and open another and tell myself to just start writing and…nothing. Still nothing. So I close everything down and turn off my computer and pick up a book and that lasts for about ten minutes before I can’t focus on that any more. I pace and try to read and turn the computer back on and open a blank page to start something completely new. And nothing. Then I turn the computer off and repeat the whole goddamn process.

So maybe I’m going to Siberia and maybe a dramatic change in scenery will…I dunno, do something. Maybe I’ll finish some of the books in my TBR pile, at least.

 

Review: Smoke in the Sun by Renée Ahdieh

Review: Smoke in the Sun by Renée Ahdieh

Smoke in the Sun

By Renée Ahdieh

YA, Historical Fantasy

For weeks, seventeen-year-old Mariko pretended to be a boy to infiltrate the notorious Black Clan and bring her bould-be murderer to justice. She didn’t expect to find a place for herself among the group of fighters—a life of usefulness—and she certainly didn’t expect to fall in love. Now she heads to the imperial castle to resume a life she never wanted to save the boy she loves.

Ōkami has been captured, and his execution is a certainty. Mariko will do what she must to ensure his survival—even marry the soverign’s brother, saying goodby to a life with Ōkami forever.

As Mariko settles into her days at court—making both friends and enemies—and attempting Ōkami’s rescue at night, the secrets of the royal court begin to unravel as competing agendas collide. One arrow sets into motion a series of deadly events even the most poerful magic cannot contain. Mariko and Ōkami risk everything to right past wrongs and restore the honor of a kingdom thrown into chaos by a sudden war, hoping against hope that when the dust settles, they will find a way to be together.

oOo

This is a really good follow up to Flame in the Mist, but it focuses more on the love story between Mariko and Ōkami so I wasn’t quite as riveted as I was with the first book. Still lots of ninjas, though. There’s more political drama in this one as well. Mariko is in the imperial city and everyone; the emperor, empress, concubines, heirs, and ladies-in-waiting all have an agenda and are all maneuvering to get more power. That definitely keeps the pages turning. There’s a sorceress in the palace as well, so we keep that thread of fantasy going throughout the book.

Mariko is still the fierce and adaptable character we had in the last book, but Smoke in the Sun is more love story than adventure story. To me, it sometimes feels like Mariko’s interactions with Ōkami are a little too HOW DO I LIIIIVE WITHOUT YOUUUUUU. Sure, Ōkami is set to be executed literally any day, but, they’ve known each other all of three months or so.

Calm down.

Or maybe that’s a solid reaction. I don’t know. I’m aro/ace, my gauge on appropriate romantic reactions didn’t even get installed.

Anyway, we’re given better introductions to Roku and Raiden who we meet in Flame in the Mist. Roku is the heir apparent and his brother, Raiden, is Mariko’s betrothed. They’re brothers and thick as thieves even though their mothers hate each other. As Roku gains more and more power though we begin to see that he’s not just a cunning and spoiled little prince, he’s also a genuine sociopath.

Raiden is little better, constantly following his brother’s orders and whims, but as the story continues we see the two begin to diverge. As Roku becomes more and more depraved, Raiden becomes more and more uncomfortable and begins to question his blind loyalty.

Meanwhile, Mariko and Ōkami are in the background with “I Will Always Love You” playing on repeat and the rest of the Black Clan waving their lighters in the air.

But, even with this being more a love story than anything else, I will happily read this again because it is a wonderful conclusion to Flame in the Mist. And I still love Takeda.

 

You can find Smoke in the Sun by Renée Ahdieh at:

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

And learn more about the author here.