Fourth World – Lyssa Chiavari

Fourth World CoverSeries: The Iamos Trilogy, #1
First Published: 28th December, 2015
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Isaak lives on Mars and discovers something that hints at the history of the planet. Nadin lives on Iamos and her people are threatened with destruction.

The beginning of the book focuses on Isaak, with Nadin coming into it later on. It’s clear from the start that they’re both on Mars in different times. Isaak is literally digging up Nadin’s history, as he assists on a geology dig site.

I liked the worldbuilding of Iamos. Its culture has hints of ancient Earth civilisations, but it isn’t exactly like any one of those. There’s a strict caste system, eugenics, and other markings of a totalitarian regime presenting itself as being for the good of the people.

Mars is not so strong. It felt very present day, from pop culture references to technology. I shouldn’t be able to recognise everything in a book set in the future, because there should have been new things appearing during the passage of time. Even if that’s just a new band or book series that’s the current big thing.

I enjoyed the overall story, as it focuses on how corporations and governments keep things from people for the benefit of those at the top. It’s a slow build at first as Isaak and friends figure out what’s happening, then speeds up once Nadin’s part gets going. There are some resolutions at the end, but this isn’t really a standalone story.

The cast is generally diverse when it comes to race and sexuality. Isaak is Latino and Nadin is non-white. The supporting characters are various races, and one of Isaak’s friends has two mothers. There’s some bigotry, such as slurs aimed at one of Isaak’s friends, but mostly these things are accepted without much comment.

Isaak is demisexual, which is made clear later on as he says it directly. Given that, I did wonder at Isaak suddenly going off on love and sex being what makes people human. Nadin is asexual but is still figuring it out and thinks of herself as broken. There’s some forced intimate contact (hugs and kisses). It’s not that any of this is unrealistic, as asexual people can internalise the message that love/sex are required to be human and something is wrong with them. Sexual assault is a common risk, along with blaming the asexual person for viewing it as assault. But it’s not really a portrayal with happy endings, at least as far as this book goes. It’s possible it’ll come around in future books in the series. I hope it does, because this would be a bad place to leave things.

Disability isn’t touched on in a major way. Where it’s referenced, it isn’t positive. Words like lame, spaz and moron are used. Crazy and psycho are aimed at people who might be dangerous. Isaak’s mother has motion sickness, but it’s not described that way. Instead, “she always insisted VR gave her motion sickness.” The wording casts doubt on that, as it isn’t that she has motion sickness, it’s that she says she does. As someone who gets motion sick frequently, I can assure readers that the vomit googles really do cause issues, and motion sickness is really real.

This is an entertaining read. The plot interested me enough to want to know what happens next. However, I’m cautious about where the relationships are going. The asexual experiences weren’t unrealistic, but they were realistic in a rather sad way, so there’s a lot resting on how the series resolves that.

Dead Air – Michelle Schusterman

Dead Air CoverSeries: The Kat Sinclair Files, #1
First Published: 1st September, 2015
Genre: Middle Grade Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Penguin Random House

Kat Sinclair’s dad gets a new job presenting a ghost-hunting TV show. Kat goes with him and starts a behind-the-scenes blog, but there’s more going on than she ever imagined.

Kat is dealing with family issues. Her mother has left. This gives Kat the freedom to find her own style, such as finally being able to cut her hair and wear horror t-shirts. She also gets on a lot better with her dad and grandmother (from her mother’s side). But at the same time, she’s angry her mother left. The children Kat meets on the set also have their own family issues to face. The parents here aren’t shown as one-sided evil people or as always getting it right. They’re realistic families trying to figure things out.

The internet features prominently. Each chapter opens with things like emails, blog posts and forum comments. Kat writes her blog as well as staying in touch with friends and family. It covers the positive things, like people being able to share their interests. It also covers the darker sides, of death threats and obsessive fans. I liked that it handled those issues without making it sound like the internet was the start of them. Kat’s own grandmother had a stalker when she was younger. The tools change, but there will always be people who take it too far.

There is a dash of the supernatural here, but the heart of the story is really the people, rather than the ghosts. Kat has to deal with Oscar, who is about her age. They’re both being homeschooled by the show’s intern Mi Jin. And there’s the whole issue of why the show has such a high turnover of hosts. The mystery unfolds at a reasonable pace. It was obvious to me long before it was to Kat, but that does mean it’s something the reader can figure out.

One of the crew, Lidia, has a congenital heart condition. She has a pacemaker, takes medicine, and has seizures. I did have concerns that this might be written off as having a supernatural cause. Seizures often get shown as something mystical rather than actual seizures. That doesn’t happen here. Some things might aggravate her symptoms, but it isn’t suggested that her heart condition was due to anything other than natural causes. However, I wasn’t fond of the plot requiring the triggering of seizures, as in reality, there’s never a good reason to do this.

Kat is biracial, with a white mother and black father. Her father is the one who appears the most in the story. Mi Jin is presumably Korean American based on her name, though it isn’t stated. There’s a gay supporting character. Generally, these things are handled with a light touch. The plot isn’t focused on them, but they aren’t missable.

This is a fun ghostly adventure, with references to classic horror films, and some new creepy tales of its own. There is some discussion of death (the ghosts tend to have died in bad circumstances), death threats and related violence. It’s handled at an age-appropriate level.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Dreadnought – April Daniels

Dreadnought CoverSeries: Nemesis, #1
First Published: 24th January, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Superhero / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Danny is transgender, but she’s scared about telling anyone. When the superhero Dreadnought dies and transfers his powers to Danny, suddenly she gains her ideal body. Now everyone can see she’s a girl, so keeping it secret isn’t going to work anymore.

There are some pacing issues at the start. Dreadnought’s history is included as one long chunk of explanation, rather than sprinkling it in. Fortunately, this isn’t a common thing in the book and the pacing does improve.

Danny has social issues to face, such as the reaction from her parents and going back to school. She catches the attention of the local superhero team, which Dreadnought had been part of before his death. She also meets another young hero, Calamity, who has a very different perspective. Calamity is Latina and her family haven’t been treated well by the authorities, so she doesn’t trust the local team. Danny and Calamity’s relationship was the best part for me. They’re marginalised in different ways, which impacts their approaches to being heroes. Right from the start, Calamity is worried about the police and other authorities. This is something that Danny hasn’t really had to think about, as being white shields her from a lot of it.

The new supervillain is introduced right at the start, when Dreadnought is killed. It takes longer for anyone to figure out what she’s up to, as it isn’t the sort of plot the heroes are expecting. This opens up a larger mystery that will undoubtedly be the rest of the series.

I found this book very heavy, as there’s a lot of bigotry. Danny is called a variety of slurs, from ones aimed at trans people to ableist ones. She’s frequently misgendered. Her parents are abusive, and were before she transitioned, so that only gets worse. The result is Danny believes she’s a terrible person and constantly berates herself about being stupid and worthless. Then there’s the hero who thinks Danny is trying to infiltrate womankind and likens being trans to being a rapist. Some readers going through similar issues might find comfort in seeing someone else facing this, but some might find it too much.

Disability is touched on, though not in depth. Prior to getting superpowers, Danny has some hearing loss. This isn’t really explored outside of mentioning it was the case, which struck me as odd. Crowded places sound very different to me if I have something boosting the sound. An amputee appears later, but those scenes are too brief for me to have much to say. I expect that to be more relevant in the next book.

Though I thought it was a reasonable story, the binary way it approached gender didn’t work for me. Danny has internalised the idea that girls and boys have to act in set ways. Girls do this, boys do that. Girls have emotions like this, boys have emotions like that. There are a few quick references to maybe not everyone fitting this division, but it’s worded as though they’re rare exceptions to the rule.

In contrast, the narrative did challenge things like the media’s presentation of women’s bodies, the pressure to starve to stay thin, and other things like that. In those cases, Danny comes around to realising she’s internalised bad things. The gender stuff doesn’t get that realisation. A particular moment of discomfort is when a girl says she was forced to learn about makeup as the only girl in the family, which Danny thinks sounds wonderful without any reservations. This is no different from Danny being forced into playing football by her dad, as it’s all about enforcing expected gender roles, but it isn’t framed as a problem.

There are positive things about the book. It shows a trans lesbian teen coming out on top despite abuse and intolerance from the people around her. The larger mystery being set up for the series looks interesting. I only wish it’d not been quite so rigid when it came to gender.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Demon Girl’s Song – Susan Jane Bigelow

Demon Girl's Song CoverFirst Published: 20th September, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Andín’s dreams of the future come to an end when she gets an ancient demon stuck in her head. But it might be there are bigger problems in the world than one demon.

The setting is a secondary fantasy world at the start of its industrial revolution. There are factories and trains, alongside magic. Motorcars are just starting to appear in places, though not to the point of replacing horses. Socially, it’s a time of change. Women have few rights, which is first seen when Andín is unable to go to university. Her father thinks it would be a waste to send a girl, and instead wants to send her brother. It’s expected that Andín will marry and her brother will hold down a job. Yet these attitudes are being challenged, not only by Andín herself. At a larger scale, there’s a push away from emperors and monarchs towards democracy in some of the countries.

Things are a bit rocky at the start of the book. Neither Andín nor the demon come across as pleasant, with a lot of random angry outbursts. Some of these didn’t make sense, and still don’t even after thinking about them. I’d have expected the demon to be a little more cunning given his age, rather than giving away his presence through tantrums. A few extra lines in places might have clarified these reactions.

Once the initial mystery of how Andín ended up with the demon is resolved, it starts to really get going. I’m glad the book didn’t consist solely of the demon mystery, as it would have stretched a bit thin. It also gives them something else to be doing as they get used to each other.

The characters do get more interesting as they settle. One thing that’s particularly interesting is how the demon changes to having a new host. After years of inhabiting men, he initially thinks of himself as a man trapped in a girl. This starts to shift as the two merge together.

The cast is diverse, with non-white, lesbian and bisexual characters. There are some references to insanity as a shorthand for bad things, though it’s not as bad as most books in that regard.

This is a standalone book. It wouldn’t require a sequel to make sense. The choice of an industrial revolution setting is less common in the genre, which I appreciated. However, the slow start and initial difficulty getting to know the characters does make it harder to get into the story. Once I did, it was an entertaining read.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Hello, Cupcake! – Karen Tack, Alan Richardson

Cupcake CoverFull Title: Hello, Cupcake!: Irresistibly Playful Creations Anyone Can Make
First Published: 24th April, 2008
Genre: Cookery Non-Fiction
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This is a book about decorating cupcakes. The designs tend towards the whimsical, with cute critters, cakes that look like other food, and similar things. I can’t fault the layout of the book, as it’s very clear. There are decent photographs of each design and templates for shaped parts where needed. The opening explains basics like how to ice in different ways and how to turn a food bag into an icing bag. However, the proof in the pudding (or cake) is trying the instructions, which is what I’ll focus on in the rest of the review.

My first attempt was the design called “Rabbit Holes”. These are the back ends of rabbits, placed among other cupcakes that look like grass. I tweaked the design a little, as it used crunched up chocolate biscuits for the bunny fur. One of the family doesn’t like chocolate biscuits and I don’t eat crunchy textures. So I swapped that out for white chocolate curls, and made white/pink Easter bunnies instead.

An issue that came up in the preparations is this is an American book and I live in the UK. The feet of the rabbits were circus peanuts, which is something I’ve never seen here. I used fondant icing and shaped my own bunny feet as an alternative. Corn syrup, used to stick the bobbles on the bunny tail, is also not a UK product, but that’s quite often available in the import section of supermarkets. I did use corn syrup, but would have got the same result with a little basic icing (icing sugar and water). This would also avoid buying an item when such a small amount was needed.

Overall, this is a very forgiving design. The sprinkles to make the rabbit fur hide any mess in the icing below. The iced grass cakes can be messy without it looking bad, as grass doesn’t have to follow any set pattern. I found the instructions clear, and it wasn’t difficult to modify as needed.

Bunny Cupcakes

Image Caption: Rabbit and grass cupcakes. The rabbit cakes are the back end of a bunny, with white chocolate curls as fur. A bobble tail (coated in pink nonpareils) is in the centre of the bunny cakes, with two back feet made of white fondant icing and pink chocolate details sticking over the edge of each cake. Around them are grass cupcakes, with piped green buttercream, and jelly beans and chocolate eggs on the grass.

I also tried the “Pumpkin Patch” design. The base cupcakes baked flat (more on that later), so mounding the icing as described was a challenge. I wasn’t happy with the result. My usual cupcake recipe would likely rise better, making the mounding process easier, and meaning it wouldn’t require too much icing to achieve.

Another problem with the pumpkins was the writing icing I used didn’t really match the orange of the chocolate curls I used to coat the pumpkins. This was a supply issue rather than being anyone’s fault, but not being able to get the right colours matters a lot more with this design. There isn’t as much room to use different colours or tweak the design.

All that said, the family thought they were good, so it wasn’t a complete disaster. But designs like the rabbit holes are much more forgiving when it comes to having to use alternate items.

Pumpkin Cupcakes

Image Caption: Pumpkin cupcakes. Orange cupcake cases contain mounded cakes covered in orange chocolate curls. Darker orange icing marks out the segments of the pumpkin. A piece of green liquorice with a pink centre is on top as a stalk.

I’d say the ease of the designs is going to depend on how easy it is to get the items used. Americans will find it a lot easier to follow the instructions. Even there, the claim that anyone can make these is an exaggeration, as it does take a bit of skill to get a cake looking reasonable. I also think some of the designs would be daunting to a beginner, as they used so many different items. Some of these could be simplified down and still look and taste fine.

Though this is mainly a decorating book, there are a few cupcake recipes. I’d note my standard recipe for cupcakes is to use equal amounts of self-raising flour, sugar and butter, with an egg or two. The recipes in this book were somewhat different. Partly due to cultural differences, as self-raising flour isn’t a thing everywhere, so it uses plain flour with raising agents added. However, some of the differences didn’t make very good cakes, in my opinion.

Vanilla cupcakes are a staple in my family, as they are one of the few that everyone likes. The recipe here uses butter and vegetable oil. The latter turned out to be an issue. It made the cake mix very runny, which was harder to handle. The cakes baked very flat, which wasn’t good for the pumpkin cakes, and meant they weren’t as fluffy. Also, the oil leached into standard paper cases, which didn’t look very good. They need thicker cases or foiled cases to work. There can be a bit of this with any cupcake baking, but it was much more pronounced using vegetable oil.

I sort of tried the lemon poppy-seed cupcakes, but I altered the recipe before using it. This is because the only lemon included is a bit of grated peel. This recipe is something I’d expect at fancy restaurants, where stuff only tastes of a hint of whatever it is, because bland is fashionable. With my whole working class upbringing thing, I like my lemon cake to actually taste of lemons, so I swapped the cream cheese for lemon curd.

I didn’t feel inspired to try the other cupcake recipes. I did try the almost-homemade vanilla buttercream, but it’s a little strange that it uses marshmallow fluff. Buttercream is very simple to make from scratch. This takes that and makes it more complicated. Which is a comment I’d have with a number of the recipes. It was interesting to try the variations, but they aren’t what I’d give a beginner, and I didn’t notice any improvement in taste or texture for the extra hassle.

When it comes to cake decorating, there’s a lot to like in this book. There are many cute designs, which can act as inspiration even if they’re not directly followed. It explains basics like how to ice things, and I particularly liked the tip of using food bags as an icing bag. I do think there’s a bit of a mismatch in places between the intended beginner audience and the complexity of the projects. Also, the recipes are something I’d skip.