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review 2017-02-18 20:19
City of Strife by Claudie Arseneault
City of Strife: (An Isandor Novel) (City of Spires Book 1) - Claudie Arseneault

City of Strife is set in the bustling city of Isandor and stars a huge cast of characters, each with intersecting storylines, histories, and paths. A few examples:

  • Arathiel, a human whose ill-fated journey to find a cure for his sick sister transformed him, dulling all his senses and giving him a much longer lifespan. It’s been over 130 years since he last set foot in Isandor, and he now feels like an unwelcome stranger there. The one place he feels comfortable: the Shelter, which provides food and a place to sleep to anyone who needs it. It’s there that he becomes friends with Larryn, the Shelter’s owner, Cal, a halfling, and Hasryan, a dark elf.
  • Nevian, an apprentice mage in the Myrian enclave. He lives in constant fear of Master Avenazar, who killed his previous tutor and now regularly abuses him. Nevian’s only ally is Varden, a High Priest of Keroth and former Myrian slave. Unfortunately, Varden, too, must tread carefully around Avenazar.
  • Lord Diel Dathirii, an elf and head of the Dathirii family. When he witnesses Avenazar publicly torturing Nevian, he decides that it’s time to finally take a stand against the Myrians, who have thus far been permitted to live by their own laws while in their enclave in Isandor. The rest of his family will stand by his decisions and support him, but that may not be enough if Isandor’s other noble families decide to abandon House Dathirii to face the Myrians alone.


City of Strife is one of the very few (perhaps only?) ARCs I’ve ever requested from an author. I was interested in the book’s LGBTQIA+ cast and “found family” aspect, and the author had a nice online form that, if I remember correctly, only asked for interested reviewers’ email addresses (easy! low stress! didn’t require NetGalley or a Twitter DM!). The long book description concerned me a little and made it difficult to tell what the book would be like, but I figured I’d give it a shot.

I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed it immensely, although I’m now unhappy that I’ll have to wait who knows how long for Book 2 to come out. A word of warning: City of Strife ends with lots of things still unresolved and several characters in peril. Crossing my fingers that none of the characters I care about get killed off in the next two books.

One thing that dismayed me when I first started reading: the many, many POVs. The book was written in third person, but chapters/sections focused on different characters’ perspectives. Almost every named character had a chapter or section written from their POV, and it wasn’t until I’d gotten 15% into the book that a POV repeated itself.

The POVs turned out to be both the book’s strength and its weakness. I loved gradually learning how the various characters’ stories were interrelated - what the stuff at the Shelter had to do with House Dathirii, who Nevian was secretly visiting for magic lessons, what would prompt Arathiel to reveal his noble blood to his friends at the Shelter and/or Isandor’s noble families, etc. However, all those POVs and complex and interrelated storylines meant that some of my favorite characters and storylines didn’t get as much page-time as I’d have liked. For example, Arathiel and, eventually, Hasryan ended up being my favorite characters, and I particularly looked forward to seeing Arathiel find a place for himself at the Shelter with Larryn, Cal, and Hasryan. Unfortunately, there wasn’t nearly as much on-page friendship-building as I expected, and one character’s actions near the end of the book destroyed my impression of the trio as an overall warm and welcoming group.

I much preferred House Dathirii, which, aside from a couple exceptions I’m hoping that one of the next couple books will cover in more detail, was largely just as warm and welcoming as it initially appeared to be. I particularly loved Camilla. Everyone could use someone like Camilla in their lives.

House Dathirii brings me to another aspect of the book I both loved and had problems with: the politics. I love fantasy and sci-fi books with lots of politics, and this one had House Dathirii clashing with the Myrian enclave and struggling to get support, a 10-year-old murder that was relevant to current politics, and more. Fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, I prefer when there’s at least one character who’s incredibly skilled at navigating politics, and this book didn’t have that, at least not front-and-center. Avenazar was so lacking in self-control that I was amazed he’d never done anything in Myria to earn himself an execution. Maybe he had really good family connections protecting him? And then there was Diel: principled, idealistic, and almost completely lacking in the ability to sit back, pick his battles, and maybe go at things a little more subtly and indirectly. At least he recognized that it was other members of his family who did the heavy lifting when it came to making sure the family survived whatever fight he’d chosen to involve them all in.

All in all, despite my complaints this was a riveting read, and I wish the next couple books were out already. In the meantime, I plan on getting myself a copy of Arseneault’s Viral Airwaves.


(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2016-12-19 01:36
Flying Without a Net
Flying Without a Net - E.M. Ben Shaul

Disclosure: E.M. Ben Shaul is a childhood friend who just published her first novel, which makes me feel a bit guilty, because I’m about to write an “It’s OK” rather than a glowing “Loved it” review.


Daniel Perez (Dani for short) a secular Israeli software engineer, is introduced to Avraham Levine (Avi for short), an Orthodox Jew and sign language interpreter, by a mutual friend. Flying Without a Net is the story of their growing relationship and an exploration of one path to reconcile being gay AND remaining a frum or Torah observant Jew.


Perhaps I’ve been reading too much LGBTQ+ fiction recently, but I found Flying Without a Net a bit too predictable. Avi and Dani have more substance than paper dolls moving through the stereotypical moves of a “coming out” novel, but they don’t read or feel like fully fleshed out people either. While there are some nice touches, the growth of their relationship is too episodic and pat for my taste. They do wrestle with certain complications to their budding romance from Avi’s religious background, but it’s a foregone conclusion that they will find a path to mutual satisfaction.


A key part of the story is that Avi’s sister happens to be deaf. E.M. Ben Shaul has a deft touch with making that just a fact and not an Issue, though at the expense of an info-dump or two. Similarly, the question of consent is at the forefront of the story, and while crucial, how it is handled is one of the things that are almost too good to be believed for real people.


If you know Jewish Boston at all, you will recognize many of the places named, but I don’t know how well the descriptions will resonate to those who don’t know the area. Similarly, E.M. Ben Shaul had a difficult challenge in deciding how much to explain the Yiddish and Hebrew vocabulary woven through the story and various Jewish customs. Despite the glossary at the end, I don’t know how appealing this book with be for anyone without previous acquaintance to the Frum/Dati world – there are just too many unfamiliar terms to keep up with.


There’s a value to seeing yourself in books and using them to help build and understand your identity. While I found Flying Without A Net a reasonable debut novel with plenty of room for the author to improve, as a long-married heterosexual, I am not the true target audience. I hope Flying Without A Net finds its way into the hands of young adults (and even older adults) who are questioning their identity and seeking potential role models of how to be true to all their selves. I think they will find the story of Dani and Avi more compelling than I did.

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text 2016-11-16 04:19
Flying Without a Net
Flying Without a Net - E.M. Ben Shaul

I've been in a reading slump since the US Election - not finding the energy to do anything other than read and re-read the echo chamber news articles.


But a childhood friend just published a book!  The official release is November 17, 2016, but my pre-order copy arrived today.  And while I don't usually commit to reviews in advance, I promised her that I would give Flying Without a Net a go.

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text 2016-10-29 16:40
DNF at 27%
First Down (The Guardian Series Book 2) - Max Walker

Because I couldn't even skim far enough to get to the sex (between the main characters).


This is an example of what not to do with third person voice narrative. Don't keep your characters so distant that a reader doesn't have a reason to care about them. Don't just tell, when you could show.

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review 2016-10-15 03:36
Draw the Line
Draw the Line - Laurent Linn,Laurent Linn

I'm conflicted about Draw The Line.  On the one hand the book is a gorgeous melding of graphic art and prose about a gay high school student expressing himself through original comics.  On the other hand, Draw the Line is yet another issue book where the central problem is a high school student being bullied for being gay/different and finding the courage to stand up to the bullies and to tell his parents about his sexual identity. 

(Props for Adrian's parent's being cool with it)

(spoiler show)


On the plus side, Adrian and his friends read like High School students and are just adorably geeky.  On the negative side, the character grouping are just a bit too stereotypical (the plump, sassy African American female sidekick, the jock/football star bully/antagonist) and the story arc fell too often into cliches (such as the drag queen bingo at the LGBTQ center and 

the redeem the homophobic bully climax

(spoiler show)



I spent a long time debating my rating, and in the end settled on 3.5 stars rather than 4 because while I very much enjoyed Draw the Line, I just wanted more sophistication out of the story. However, don't let the rating dissuade you from exploring illustrator and puppet designer Laurent Linn's debut attempt at young adult fiction.  Flaws and all, I think you will be glad you took the time.



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