To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

Christopher Paolini is best known for his Inheritance Cycle, a fantasy four-part series beginning with Eragon. I don’t know about you, but Eragon was a teenage favorite of mine. It had the right mix of suspense, angst, and, of course, dragons. When I saw TSIASOS was released, I had to pick it up. Here’s a synopsis from Amazon:

Kira Navárez dreamed of life on new worlds.

Now she’s awakened a nightmare.

During a routine survey mission on an uncolonized planet, Kira finds an alien relic. At first she’s delighted, but elation turns to terror when the ancient dust around her begins to move.

As war erupts among the stars, Kira is launched into a galaxy-spanning odyssey of discovery and transformation. First contact isn’t at all what she imagined, and events push her to the very limits of what it means to be human.

While Kira faces her own horrors, Earth and its colonies stand upon the brink of annihilation. Now, Kira might be humanity’s greatest and final hope . . .

As a note, TSIASOS is hard sci-fi. Technology, space travel, aliens, the works. If you’re not into that, this may not be the book for you. It’s also an epic, coming in at nearly 900 pages including the appendices.

We have to give props for a stunning cover!

The Good

The characters in this story were very full, and I found myself really rooting for the main character, Kira. I liked that she wasn’t this perfect individual that would save the world or whatever. She was flawed. Stubborn, a little naive, and just plain difficult at times. This, to me, made her an excellent, relatable protagonist.

The world-building in this book is also truly amazing. The story takes place sometime in the distant future on a distant planet. The tech has (obviously) advanced far beyond what we have on Earth today. Paolini does well in describing this tech to me without it feeling like he’s just dumping info. The knowledge comes in an organic way, which I really appreciate. I also enjoy that this tech has limits and drawbacks. For example, humans can be placed in cryostasis, but it can have negative effects on their health. Ships can travel at the speed of light, but can overheat. These little details made the world feel very real, as opposed to fictional.

The Bad

In truth, it took me 300 pages before I really got into this book. After I got into it, I read the last 600 pages over 2 days. The first 300 pages, for context, took several weeks to get through. Many times, I felt like putting it down. It was my knowledge of the Inheritance Cycle and its payoff that kept me going. In my opinion, the plot didn’t really move much in the first third of the book after Kira finds the relic, and the stakes were quite low in the beginning (or at least that’s how I perceived them).

There were some romance elements in the book that just felt unnecessary, and I didn’t feel that they added anything to the characters or the plot. Maybe if they were fleshed out further and impacted the story beyond a chapter or two, they would work for me.

I was also slightly dissatisfied with the ending. After the climax, there was a second reveal — I’ll keep it secret, don’t worry! However, this second reveal felt like a tacked on ending to open up the possibility of a sequel. Personally, I don’t think every book has to be a part of a series.

The Verdict

I’ll give this one a 3/5. I don’t think I’ll be picking it up again soon, but I really enjoyed the last 2/3 of the book.

Let’s Talk About Rejection

I’m deep in the querying trenches for my first full-length novel. It took a year to write and a year to edit. Will it take a year to be picked up by an agent? Maybe. But that’s okay. Let’s talk about why.

Writing, like any art form, is highly subjective. What one person loves, another person might hate. Same for books. For example, one of my least favorite books of all time is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I’ve had to read it at least three times for different classes in college and high school, and not one of those read-throughs has inspired any kind of love from me. As much as I dislike that book, I’m certain that it’s someone’s favorite. They have Scarlet Letter merch, dress up as a character for Halloween, re-read the book every year, the whole shebang. It’s just not for me.

This subjectivity means finding the right agent to be excited about your project might take some time. This whole querying experience is about just that: finding the right agent. Getting accepted by an agent doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the right agent for me or my project. Getting rejected by an agent doesn’t mean your piece is bad. It’s all just part of being a writer.

Something I see a lot of is people getting discouraged after being rejected, specifically because they feel like they’re not an author if they aren’t published. Here’s the definition of an author:

So, have you written something? Congratulations, you’re an author!

My rejections remind me of a favorite Sylvia Plath quote:

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I firmly believe that everything happens when it’s supposed to. I also believe the act of trying is very important. Failure is inevitable. We all fail at some things. Does that mean we should quit? Put down the pen and decide writing isn’t for us? Absolutely not. It’s hard, and it can be very discouraging to see yet another rejection email. But, to quote Walt Whitman, “Keep your face always toward the sunshine – and shadows will fall behind you.”

If you’re in the same hell – I mean place – that I am: keep trying, keep looking toward the sun, and never give up.

A Beginning and an End

It’s the first day of 2021! Is anyone else still stuck in March 2020?? No? Just me, then…

While it’s easy to look back on 2020 and think, “Oh my god, this year sucked,” (and let’s face it: this isn’t one we’ll look back on wistfully) it’s really important – for me at least – to take stock of what I learned this year.

  1. Time is valuable. For me, this was the number one lesson of this year. Time will continue to pass no matter what you decide to do with it. And, as we’ve all seen, your time and your abilities can be cut short at any moment. Whether it was by quarantine, illness, or a death, we have been hit with a reminder that absolutely nothing is guaranteed.
  2. Be in charge of your own happiness. For most of us this year, we were cut off from many usual sources of entertainment: travel, movies, concerts, hanging out with friends, even going out to eat. This meant we all had to get a little creative, or try new things. I personally found that I am really and truly an introvert. While I missed my tennis matches, Bachelorette nights, and writing group, I also enjoyed the time I was able to spend hanging out at home and learning new things. I learned how to garden, tried my hand at video game programming (learning still in progress), and found a new appreciation for at-home solo exercise (shout out to the Nike Run and Nike Train Club apps… you the real MVPs). I finished the manuscript for my sci-fi book and will be sending it out to agents this month (Eep!). The thing is, everything outside our own little worlds can change in an instant. This year was yet another reminder to me that I can choose to be happy and thrive no matter the circumstances.
  3. Technology is truly amazing. Maybe this goes without saying. Of course it’s amazing. But I know I take technology for granted. It’s not something I give conscious thought to, even though it’s in every single aspect of our lives, from our coffee makers to our smart phones to our jobs. It makes everything so convenient. This year, though, it became imperative. I meet with my writing group every Thursday via Zoom so we can critique each other’s work and provide new ideas. Without technology, we would have…sent each other letters? Tried to meet in a park in the Texas heat? More likely, we simply wouldn’t have met at all. How many people would have been cut off from the world entirely without technology? Social media can be toxic, but this year it became a lifeline.

Now for the resolutions. I’ve never really been much of a New Year’s Resolution type of person. You can choose to make a change any day of the year; no need to wait for January 1. However, moving into 2021, I think it’s important not to forget everything we learned in 2020. I’ll keep it short and sweet:

Keep learning. Choose happiness. Tell your people you love them.

What are your resolutions for this year?

December’s Picks

What I’m reading: Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace

I know. War and Peace? The giant one with the little writing? By that Russian guy? Yep. That one. It’s definitely not something I would normally pick up. I’m more of a sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery type of gal. So this historical novel that is more of a tome than anything falls well outside my wheelhouse. But, hear me out. I try to live by the idea that you can learn something from everyone and everything. Yes, even that guy in traffic that cut you off – he can help teach you empathy. Working from this idea, it would be naive of me to think I could not learn something from this epic. Thus far, Tolstoy’s descriptions of the people and settings are phenomenal, and he doesn’t go on for 18 pages describing a rose bush (looking at you, Nathaniel Hawthorne). I can definitely take something away from that. Reviews on the book that I’ve read also mention how human and real his characters are – something I am hoping to learn more about as I progress in W&P. Will I finish it? Maybe not. If I learn something, it was worth it.

What I’m watching: Jurassic Park Series on Netflix (US)

No, it’s not a tv show series. It’s the movie series from the 90s! I’m a huge dino nerd. Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated (and a little terrified) by dinosaurs. How did such enormous creatures die off? How did they exist in the first place??? Anyway, enter Jurassic Park. In my opinion, totally worth a re-watch. They hold up for me. The CG – especially for the time – still looks good. The jump scares are there, not to mention the iconic movie score. Trust me. Watch ’em before they’re off Netflix again.

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What I’m listening to: 2020 Spotify Wrapped

Whoever thought of the Spotify Wrapped playlists at Spotify deserves an award. I love these things. It’s so fun to look back at music you discovered this year, as well as old favorites that played on repeat. Are you a Spotify person, too? Check out my 2020 Top Songs here:

Ruth Ware’s One by One

Let me start by saying that I really enjoy Ruth Ware’s writing. I find she is able to keep me guessing until she decides she wants to let me in on the twist. So when a friend of mine said there was a new Ruth Ware book out, I had to have it.

Y’all. I blasted through this 369 page book in less than 3 days. I’m a busy lady, so keeping me engaged that fully is truly a feat.

One by One is inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. It’s a murder mystery driven by a killer that’s in the house.

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When a Stranger Calls, anyone?

The Good

There are two narrators in this book: Erin and Liz. The author does a great job of using multiple narrators to drive the story forward rather than letting them hinder it. Related to this, the author created distinct characters outside the narrators. I’m someone that really needs to see the characters and setting. When I’m reading, it’s like I’m watching a movie in my head. She totally nailed it there.

The twist really upped the ante, and the author used this reveal to create really intense tension. My heart was pounding. I absolutely could not put this book down once the twist was revealed. Sorry, pup, our walk has been postponed! Just one more chapter….

The Bad

I felt the two narrators had a very similar voice despite being two different people. This could have been intentional on the part of the author, as if to say they’re not that different after all. For me though, I’d have liked to see more distinction in their thought patterns and not just in their histories.

I also think if you’re a seasoned mystery reader, the twist might have jumped out at you from the start. Though I didn’t guess it, looking back, all the signs were there. (If I’m honest, I’m kind of stretching to put this in the “bad” section. Isn’t it a quality of a good mystery to have everything line up at the end?)

The Verdict

I’ll actually give this one a 5/5. I might be biased – Ruth Ware fan here – but this is one I’ll definitely pick up again. It has a nice cozy mystery vibe, and I’ve recommended it to friends of mine looking for that.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Trigger Warning

This review will discuss triggering content explored in Maya Angelou’s book, including childhood abuse and trauma, rape, and racism.

This book is a classic for a reason. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou does not pull a single punch. She is matter-of-fact when discussing the prejudice and racism inflicted upon her from a young age. She is fearless in her retelling of a childhood rape. Dr. Angelou writes about such heavy issues with a hand that says, “Here it is – keep looking.”

The Good

This book is fantastically written. I may be partial as a poet myself, but I loved the way Dr. Angelou wrote, as though the whole book were a work of poetry. She fit words together in such a way that I was left reeling. I think this is a difficult thing to do for a novel-length piece. However, I believe it was executed in such a way that it enhanced the book rather than overwhelming it.

I also have to laud the honesty of the piece. It takes great courage to write so openly about trauma and tragedy. Imagine as a child a white woman decides your name is too hard to pronounce and therefore calls you something else entirely. The dehumanization of that single act is something that has remained at the forefront of my mind. This book is a reminder that, though we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.

The Bad

I’ll be honest – this book took me weeks to get through. I enjoyed the way it was written, and the story is compelling with good pacing. So what was the issue? The problem for me lay within myself, not the book. The subject matter is really heavy. Given the current climate of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, as well as my own traumas, at times I had to put this book down and walk away, sometimes for days at a time. I needed time to process what I was reading and the emotions evoked by the author.

I also felt that the ending was a little abrupt. But, considering it’s the first in a decent-sized series, I get why she ended there. It made me want to know what happened next.

The Verdict

Overall, I’ll give this book a 4/5. The subject matter is profoundly important, so it is a must-read for everyone, in my opinion. That said, because of the weight of the subject matter, I don’t think this is a book I’ll be picking up for a second read in the near future.

On Grief

In my backyard, there’s a patch of dirt that absolutely refuses to grow grass. I say “patch,” but truthfully, it’s probably sixty percent of the total backyard area. When it rains, the dirt patch becomes a mud patch. It’s treacherously slick when wet and takes days to dry out. I never paid it much attention until it became The dirt patch. I didn’t appreciate the grass that grew in spite of the Texas heat. It was only a fact; quite literally, just a part of the scenery.

Years ago, we had our siding replaced. During the replacement process, the contractors left debris on the grass. Trash not taken care of immediately has a way of multiplying and traveling. To this very day, I can go into the dirt patch and find leftover old siding pieces that the dirt patch has claimed for its own. That grass underwent trauma for weeks during the construction until, finally, it ceased to exist.

Two years ago, my best friend died. Her death was expected, but sudden. The trauma rolled over me in waves until, like the grass, I ceased to exist. Some might call it dissociation. Others might say it was a depressive episode. I was a specter in my own life, fighting against the void that constantly threatened to drown me.

Months flipped by like too-slow frames in an old movie, and I hardly noticed their passing. Holidays came and went in a flurry of uncomfortable stares and “how are you doing?”s. I found out quickly that many people who asked, though well-meaning, didn’t want a truthful answer. I fell back on “I’m fine”s and plastered-on smiles followed by escapes to the bathroom.

I would stare at my reflection without recognizing the face looking back. She was a stranger. Someone I’d seen a few times, maybe in passing at the grocery store or at a yoga class. Had her eyes always been that color? Had she always been so pale? When was the last time she’d slept though the night? My cheekbones strained at my thinning skin and I wondered if I’d eaten.

Time is a heartless teacher, and she drove ever forward. She hardened me, closed me off. In some ways, I felt betrayed by such a sudden death, as though it was a personal offense. In truth, I wasn’t owed anything by a woman on her deathbed. I’m still not owed anything. But in the stillness of night while the world around me sleeps, I still feel the ghost of that old hurt settle into the bed beside me.

I found days difficult to navigate; it was as if the earth had shifted on its axis but no one told me. My own self-imposed writing deadlines, dutifully met in the past, came and went with nothing to show for them. Projects fell to the wayside. My husband stood sentry, concerned for me but letting me have space, making sure I was cared for while I weathered the storm raging inside me.

Looking back, there are at least six months in my memory that are unaccounted for. Blank. If I see pictures from that time, the memory is hazy, as though someone else is describing the scene to me.

Before I’d gotten confirmation of her passing, I felt it like a physical thing. I felt her absence from the earth in my bones. When she died, I felt a part of me – a vital, blood-of-my-blood part of me – die, too.

After her death, I shared this on social media:

Today, the world stopped making sense to me. Today, I found out my best friend passed on Friday evening. I’m angry, I’m soul-crushingly sad, and even a little scared for the future ahead without her. If you met Madi, you had no option but to love her. She was kind, strong, smart, and she had a way of making you feel like you were all of those things too. I’ll miss her teasing me about the fact that I can’t work foreign toilets. I’ll miss trading recipes and having whole conversations in Harry Potter quotes. I’ll miss staying up way too late on the weeks I’d come visit because we didn’t want to waste a single moment. But I am so grateful for the memories I do have and can cherish in her absence. Madi, you were my family. I love you so much babes.

In the years since, I’ve been largely silent in my grief. It was – and remains to be – a private thing for me. I’ve never found it easy to share my feelings, and doing so after her passing felt more performative than truthful. Besides, the only person I really wanted to talk to about it was her.

The thing about grief that no one tells you is that it’s never truly gone. The sorrow is waiting for you in the darkness of insomniac nights, or in the brightness of a memory very nearly forgotten. Some people say that grief is love with nowhere to go. I think grief is the price we pay for love. It is the gold coins on our loved one’s eyes as they pass over the River Styx. To love someone is a privilege, and there is no privilege in this world that is free.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides is a psychological thriller, and my goodness does it keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s one of those books that after you read it, you can’t describe it decently without giving away the ending. So, to avoid any spoilers, I’ll link to a synopsis of the plot here, and do my utmost to keep an air of *mystery* about the plot moving forward.

The Good:

As a whole, I think TSP is well-written. There are two points of view (Theo and Alicia) and each has its own distinct voice. I sometimes find that two points of view in a book end up sounding like the same person – or rather, like a one-human play in which the same person just puts on a hat and an accent – but not here. It did help that there was a narrator for each of the main characters on the audiobook version. That aside, the speech patterns of both characters, and even the other characters in the story, felt distinctly different to each other.

The pacing of the book was quite good, and I found it to be driving forward nicely. In my opinion, it falters a bit around the 2/3 mark, but we’ll get into that later. That said, I blew through TSP. Even listening to it as an audiobook (narration time around 9 hours), I was finished in just two days.

Right up until the twist, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I kept wondering how on earth the two storylines would collide, if at all. Truly, I thought the book would end with the storylines being close but never really coming together as one. Maybe that’s just a bit of naïveté on my part, or maybe I was just that immersed in the story. I like to think I’m halfway decent at picking up on clues, but not with this book. The twist made me say “wow” out loud. That doesn’t happen often. In fact, the last time it did was when I read The Woman in Cabin 10 three years ago.

The Bad:

There was a portion about 2/3 of the way through the book in which Theo really does go on about a personal situation he finds himself in. I’ll not give any specifics, but trust me: you’ll know what I mean. This part of the book was very monotonous for me. If I’d been reading a hard copy instead of listening to the audiobook, I would have flipped ahead. Others might find the situation interesting, but in my opinion, it went on too long. Though, perhaps, the endless effect of it was true to how someone would feel in that situation in real life. Unsure… As a reader though, I’m not feeling it.

The Verdict:

All in all, I give this title a solid 4.5/5. It was a good, engaging read that kept me wondering and interested. I would definitely recommend this to a friend, especially if that person is into thrillers.

Genie

A genie came to me today
with a different sort of deal.

“I’ll give you just one wish,” he said
“One wound that you can heal.”

So I sat upon the wishing tree
and contemplated my position.

I thought of heaven and of hell
and the price of their admission.

“What have you decided, girl?”
the genie said to me.

I said “You’ve given me just one wish
because you’ve heard the pain in me.”

The genie just stared
with a different sort of stare

and waited, not impatiently,
for my words to mix with air.

“Genie,” I said to him, standing from the tree.
“It seems you’ve set yourself a trap,

but the prey will not be me.”

I walked away from a genie today
and left his wish behind.

Sometimes price exceeds value,
and desires become unkind.

Beware

Fog drifted in from the depths of the mountains. It flowed into valleys and dry riverbeds, congealing the night’s blackness into a pool of sacrificial blood. The townspeople of Bruxin drew their curtains tight shut and whispered to each other about spirits and demons. The cool October fog whispered back: Beware.

Tucked into a grove of oak trees at the far edge of town lay a small cottage. Puffs of smoke tripped up the chimney to join the Halloween gloom. Through a small crack in the worn curtains, flickering light spilled onto gnarled tree trunks and watching eyes.

Ava Jenkins struck a long match. The flame sputtered to life before settling in to consume itself. She lit the circle of white candles one by one before blowing out the match. The halo of sea salt around the votives shimmered in the soft light. She sat cross-legged at the center of the circle. The clock on the mantle ticked softly.

“This is so stupid,” she said, loudly, as if to make sure any lurking phantoms heard. She stared at the Ouija board she’d dug out of the closet. Its letters were faded, smoky black. Hello, Yes, No, Goodbye. The last word filled Ava’s mind, echoed there, taunted her, reminded her that Mary hadn’t even said it.

The planchette stood innocently in the middle of the board, waiting for her touch to give it life. The glass center watched her chip off black nail polish. The shimmering raven flecks found the board like ash from a far-off fire. Light from the circle of candles bled through the glass and cast muted rainbows over the board. Rain tapped the window steadily.

It had been exactly a year since her best friend died. Ava had drifted through today, a ghost in her own right, unable to think or speak or breathe past her grief. The hole in her chest where Mary used to be felt especially cavernous, yawning wider and wider until Ava thought it might swallow her whole. As the last bell of the school day rang, she made a decision: it was time. She needed answers.

“I can’t believe you left without saying anything,” Ava whispered to the planchette. It regarded her wordlessly. A tear slipped from the end of her nose to join the bits of nail polish. She balled her fists tightly, relishing the bite of nails into palms.

The house shifted as old houses are wont to do. Thunder rolled across the sky two towns over and up Ava’s back, a warning.

Ava unclenched her fists. Crescent moons lay on her palms, two rows of four headstones. Trembling fingers found the smooth wood of the planchette. Careful not to move, not to pretend the board worked when it didn’t, Ava spoke.

“Mary?”

Silence answered. The white candles burned around her without wavering. Voice shaking, she tried again.

“Mary? Mary, are you… are you here?”

The planchette jerked to one side. Ava’s eyes widened and she snatched away her fingers as though bitten.

“Nope, nope. Too creepy. What was I thinking?” Ava stood. Her long, dark hair brushed the board. A little hysterical laugh bubbled up from deep inside.

The planchette skittered across the Ouija. It bounced to a halt.

Three letters shrieked up at her through the glass eye. Yes.

“No way,” Ava breathed. “I just knocked it with my hair. That’s all. She’s not here. No one’s here.” But even as the words fell from her lips, she couldn’t bring herself to leave the protective circle.

The planchette twitched left, then right. Back on Yes.

For a moment, there was only the sound of creaking trees and Ava’s heartbeat. Her gaze slid up, up, up from the planchette to the mirror on the wall. An unfamiliar pale face stared back at her, head tilted curiously, framed by curtains of greasy black hair. Blood dripped from charcoal eyes, soaking into the girl’s stained nightgown.

“You dare to summon Mary?” the apparition asked, sharpened teeth glinting in the candlelight.

“W-wait. How…? You’re not —” Horror dawned on Ava’s face. “Oh no.”

The creature’s grin stretched as it watched panic play across its victim’s face. “Oh yes.”

Mary grasped the mirror’s frame, cracked fingernails digging into the gilded metal. She pulled herself forward and stepped out of the mirror. Gore spattered the wood floor with each halting step. Her joints crepitated sickeningly, but still she advanced on another unwitting victim.

Ava stumbled backward. Candles toppled over behind her. Their flames stared longingly at the wood below them, but they stayed their hunger, for now. Salt whispered beneath her feet. Don’t break the circle it said. Too late.

Mary let forth a shrill scream to the heavens. As if on command, the candles’ flames began lapping at everything they could touch.

At her back, Ava could feel the heat of the newborn wildfire. Her eyes darted to the door just as an icy gust swept Mary toward her. The scent of death and decay followed close behind. Frozen fingers found her neck and dug in, lifting her to the ceiling. Ava scrabbled against the demon to no avail, legs flailing uselessly.

“Please,” Ava choked. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to talk to my friend.”

Bloody Mary bore down harder. Her mouth split with the force of her grin. Crimson blood dripped from her lips.

“You will. I took her, too.”

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