Tag: book review

Media Monday: Australian thrillers #AtoZChallenge

A to Z Challenge 2018 AThe books: Broometime Seranade by Barry Metcalfe and Crossings by Ashley Capes

The music: “Straight Lines” by Silverchair

It’s a well-known fact that everything in Australia is trying to kill you, so why would books set there be any different?

In Crossings, wildlife ranger Lisa is puzzled when kangaroo entrails show up outside her house. She thinks it’s her abusive ex, until a bunch of people start dying. She’s busy trying to find the culprit, but she’s having a hard time focusing because her dad has dementia and needs her full attention. And then wildfires come through, along with a giant ghost kangaroo because it’s Australia and did I mention, everything – from the people to your own mind, from the weather and landscaping to giant ghost kangaroos – is trying to kill you! This book is a great mix of suspense and paranormal, with a relatable main character, a fast-moving plot, and wonderful imagery that pulls you right in.

The second book, Broometime Seranade, also features death because that’s what happens in Australia. Special Australian-equivalent-of-the-FBI/CIA agents Martin and Claire are sent to a coastal town to investigate a bunch of bodies that have been discovered in the area. As they investigate further, trying not to blow their cover and enjoying the beautiful beach, they soon discover that there are darker forces at work than just the average murderer – a foe more powerful than they can imagine, who’s laid a trap they’ve walked right into. Also, there are spiders in this book. Lots and lots of spiders that are okay with killing. Because of course.

The music I’ve picked is in keeping with the theme coming from Australia. ACDC is probably the best Australian band ever, but who can forget Silverchair? Everyone, probably, because did you know that the singer married Natalie Imbruglia, the band members are almost 40, and they released a new album in 2007? Me neither. This song is off that album. As you can see, they’ve changed a bit in the last 20 years. But in true Aussie fashion, this video seems to be the band members running from something probably trying to kill them.

Every day this month, I’m participating in the 2018 A to Z Blogging Challenge. Please take a moment to check out some of the other blogs that are participating.

Media Monday: Fairy tale noir

Media MondayThe books: The Twisted Files by Sonya M. Black

The music: “Tourniquet” by Rasputina

The Twisted Files are, as the title of this post suggests, fairy tale noir: retellings of classic fairy tales, set in a seedy world of murder and mayhem, that take the form of crimes that need to be solved by a gumshoe and his assistant who don’t always follow the rules.

The first book, The Snow White Files, introduces us to PI Brendan Hunter as he’s hired by a clan of dwarves to find a missing girl. He finds himself in the middle of a political power struggle between dwarves, sirens, and a wicked witch.

The second book, The Riding Hood Files, takes us further into this world as Brendan’s assistant, Stasia Weatherly, finds herself in a power struggle of her own – one funded by synthetic pixie dust and perpetuated by shifters.

Taken together, they’re a fast-paced and refreshing look at fairy tales every reader is familiar with, but with a twist in that the plot of the fairy tale, and it’s characters, are used to advance a very modern, arcing storyline. Black does a great job with her dark, criminal-mastermind updates.

The accompanying song, “Tourniquet,” is probably more recognizable in its original form by Marilyn Manson, but this twist makes it somehow darker, by adding a whimsical flair that makes the lyrics that much creepier.

 

2017 Book Roundup

2017goodreadslogoOne of my goals for 2017 was to read 100 books. I read 56, so just over halfway to the goal.

This list only includes books I finished. There are dozens that I started but didn’t finish (often not even the first chapter) either because they were poorly edited or didn’t hold my interest. I also didn’t include textbooks or journals that I read for school.

Here’s a breakdown of what I read:

  • 21 (38%) were either kids or young adult; the rest were adult. 10 of those were Percy Jackson books that I read with my son, and a handful more were YA books I read before taking them into work (I currently work with teens/tweens who love to read).
  • 2 (4%) were nonfiction and the rest were fiction.
  • 4 (7%) were single short stories, and 3 (5%) were short story anthologies.
  • I know the authors of 20 (36%) of the books.
  • 14 (25%) were in a series where I read at least 1 other book in the same series. 4 more were the first books in the series and the next book hasn’t been released yet, while 5 more were the first books in the series and I wasn’t impressed enough to track the next books down (or even to see if they’re out yet).
  • 4 (7%) were from Amazon’s first read program, where they offer a free ebook to Prime members.
  • 5 (8%) were translated from another language or from a non-Western country. 3 of those 5 were from the Amazon Crossings imprint, and 2 were ones I picked up in India.
  • 3 (5%) were ones I’d read previously.

Best books I read in 2017:

  • The Dirt and Stars series, books 1 and 2, by Kevin Killiany. They’re YA, about the US space program, and set in an alternative near future. I was expecting fluffy sci-fi, but instead they’re a great look at how racism permeates society and how individuals can fight back. I’m really looking forward to book 3.
  • The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers by Mike Masilamani was a beautiful tale of life inside a Sri Lankan refugee camp, told from the POV of a boy too young to realize just how horrible most of humanity can be.
  • Blood and Circuses by Aliya Smyth is a wonderfully researched vampire tale set in ancient Rome.
  • Palm Trees in the Snow by Luz Gabás tells of one family’s experiences with colonization in 1950’s Equatorial Guinea.

If you challenged yourself to read a set number of books in 2017, how did you end up doing?  What were your favorites?  Anything you particularly disliked?

Media Monday: On (not) coping with the death of a loved one

Media MondayThe story: “Find Me an Angel” by E.D. Martin

The movie: A Man Called Ove

The music: Hula” by Solstafir

A few years ago, I participated in a writing competition that tasked us to write a story based on the song “The Riddle” by 80’s British teen idol Nik Kershaw. I’d never really heard of him, but the more I listened to his stuff, the more I liked it. I decided to write a story based on each of 100+ songs he’s put out over the last few decades (I’ve currently finished about 5).

One of my favorite songs of his is “Find Me An Angel,” which inspired this week’s story. I interpreted it as a man, overcome with debilitating grief after his wife’s death, issuing a desperate plea to her to help him find relief. I entered the story in a contest on my writing critique site and although I didn’t win, I got a really positive response, so I posted it on Medium where it’s had a strong showing. Go read it.

Shortly after I posted “Find Me an Angel,” I watched a thematically-related Swedish movie, A Man Called Ove (although the trailer says it’s lighthearted, don’t be fooled – it’s a tearjerker). It’s about this cranky old Swedish guy, Ove, whoss wife recently passed away. As the movie progresses, we’re shown just how much he doted on her and what a positive influence she was on him. He decides he can’t live without her and tries to kill himself but keeps getting interrupted by people in his life needing him – including a fiery angel in the form of his new neighbor, Parvaneh. It’s also a book by Fredrik Backman, which I haven’t read yet but intend to do soon.

Finally, today’s song is “Hula” by Solstafir, which I picked for several reasons. First, the lyrics and video are about a woman (not) coping with the death of her child, which fits in with “Find Me an Angel” and A Man Called Ove. Second, the song is beautiful. And third, I’ve been trying to work as much Icelandic stuff into my life as possible as my spring break trip to Vikingland gets closer.

Taken as a whole, my story, the movie, and the song all portray different aspects of how someone reacts to grief. Do you give into it? Do you hold it inside and let yourself become bitter or empty? Or do you accept your loss and strengthen your relationships with those around you? For each of the characters, it seems to be a combination of all three.

Media Monday: When the love dies

DesolationThe book: Desolation (Mythical Madness Book 1) by A.R. DeClerck

The music: “Dying” by Hole

What happens when you’re the goddess of love, but you just ain’t feelin’ it? Why, send a half-god werewolf to save you!

Desolation is more than that, though. It’s a paranormal romance (fantasy romance?) about Vinnie, the goddess of love whose job it is to help mortals fall in love. But years on the job have taken their toll, and she’s come down with desolation – a terminal illness that causes gods and goddesses to wither away. The catch here, however, is that if she dies, love dies too.

Her sister calls on the Fates’ assassin, Gage, to save her. But in doing so, he has to face an enemy and past he’d rather forget about – the king who made him the half-werewolf he is today.

Although DeClerck says she writes “adventure romance,” there’s more to this story than just sexy people falling for each other and fighting bad guys. She addresses sacrifice (for family, for duty, for love) as well as the fundamental nature of love – is it purely chemical/biological, and even if that’s just a component, what does that mean for a relationship? Is there even a relationship?

Overall, it’s a good story (although I personally would’ve cut out the last few pages to play up the themes I mention above, but I guess that’s why I don’t write romance!)

The accompanying song, “Dying,” fits with the scene I would’ve ended the book with – the idea that love (personified, in this case) is dying. And it’s gonna fight, but sometimes that’s not enough.

As a bonus, Desolation is currently free on Amazon this week! Make sure to grab a copy, and then let me know in the comments whether you agree with my song choice.

Media Monday: Cross-cultural historical love stories

Media MondayThe books: The Lioness of Morocco by Julia Drosten and Palm Trees in the Snow by Luz Gabás

The music: “My Companjera” by Gogol Bordello

One of the perks of being an Amazon Prime person is that I get a free book each month before it’s released (yeah, like I need free books). Some of them are crap, but I’ve had good luck with the Amazon Crossing books – books that are bestsellers in another country and have been translated into English. I’m painfully aware that I read mostly American authors, so I’m trying to branch out and incorporate other cultures into what I read.

The Lioness of Morocco is a literary romance/adventure story set in Morocco in the early 19th century. It follows Sibylla, a woman who feels trapped by her time, who convinces her husband to be an agent of her father’s shipping company in Morocco. Her husband turns out to be a less-than-worthless jerkface, and Sibylla finds herself drawn to a handsome, daring French guy who actually sees her as a person. Fate has fun pushing them together and pulling them apart, in a fascinating look at life in a North African country two hundred years ago, and all the customs and culture that goes with it.

Palm Trees in the Snow, also a very literary story, is set in both present-day Spain and on a small island off the coast of Guinea in the 1950’s. Clarence is trying to find out more about her family history and in doing so, the book follows her uncle Killian and father Jacob who moved to the island mid-century to work on a Spanish cocoa plantation. Killian fell in love with Bisila, the daughter of a native foreman on the plantation, and his niece must piece together why neither men ever returned to the island after its rough transition to independence. The story focuses on the relationship between colonizer and colony, between Whites and Blacks, and it does so in a very balanced way, showing the experiences of those on both sides of the issues, both at the time and half a century later.

For both these stories, I knew next to nothing about the history detailed in colonial Morocco or Guinea. In addition to great stories, these books were also engaging history lessons.

For the music, today it’s my favorite gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello. “My Companjera” is a song about searching – for a partner, for reliving a shared experience, for love, for answers, for whatever. And that’s the theme of both of today’s books, I think – getting out of your comfort zone to look for more to life, and finding love and adventure in the process.

And as a bonus, here’s the trailer for Palm Trees in the Snow, which is currently available on Netflix (in Spanish, with subtitles).

Media Monday: the role of violence in the Percy Jackson universe

The books: Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus (10 books in all; there are other books in this universe but I haven’t read them yet)

The music: “I’ll Follow You” by Shinedown

My son loves mythology, so of course he’s a huge fan of this series. I try to read what he’s reading so we can discuss it, so I picked up the first book after we watched the movie. And then I binge-read the first series over the course of a weekend. When he started reading the first book of the second series, I binge-read all those too.

The basic premise is that Greek gods and goddesses (and Roman god and goddesses, in the second series) have a hard time keeping it in their pants and therefore there are a ton of demigods running around – half mortal, half immortal. Monsters are attracted to them and want to kill them, so there’s a place they can go – Camp Half-Blood (Greek) and Camp Jupiter (Roman) – where they’re safe from monsters. The gods then send them on quests, which form the plots of the books.

Overall, they’re good books. From a parent perspective, they’re a good read for kids because there’s no bad language or sex (although there is a TON of violence, which I’ll get to in a bit). The characters age but don’t get all emo-whiny on us like in Harry Potter. For the most part, they use teamwork and build each other up, rather than letting divisions come between them or tear each other down with insults and backstabbing (at least the main core of characters; some of the other characters aren’t so savory).

From a reader’s perspective, the plots are solid, although they tend to get kinda monotonous over time; with ten books, some of the quests and monster fights blur together. And sometimes it feels like Riordan is scraping the barrel with some of the monsters and minor Greek and Roman personalities he digs up. But all the characters have their own unique personalities (impressive, considering how many there are) without coming across as stereotypes.

That said, I had a serious problem with how much violence there was in these books.

“Hey look, a monster.”

“Kill it!”

“Maybe we should talk first?”

“No, let’s just kill it.”

“Okay!”

Even Annabeth, who was the daughter of Athena, would trick monsters and then kill them. Aphrodite’s daughter, Piper, would use her charm on monsters and then kill them. Percy, son of Poseidon, and Jason, son of Jupiter, would just go straight for the kill. Even when the monsters showed that they could be allies (Tyson the cyclops, Bob the Titan), the protocol was to kill first and ask questions later.

When the kids were at their camps, they spent a lot of time training for war. And when on their quests and when fighting their wars, characters died, not just monsters. The main villains – the Titans and the giants – never wanted to negotiate, so the only response was only violence and fighting to stop them, which I really didn’t like. Considering how much posturing goes on with various world leaders, I think kids need books that show peaceful solutions when two sides disagree instead of fighting. They need books that show nuanced villains rather than ones that are automatically bad just because they happen to be [insert species/race/whatever].

My kid wants me to write him a series of books about a kid who time travels, solving mysteries, and I can guarantee that my main character will solve problems with his words, not his sword.

The accompanying song, “I’ll Follow You,” is about supporting someone you love, and that’s a major theme in the Percy Jackson books. There’s the obvious plot where Percy follows his girlfriend to literal Hell because he doesn’t want her to have to experience it alone, but that love the characters have for each other shines throughout the whole series. In fact, that’s one of Percy’s weaknesses – he’s too loyal to his friends. Despite the violence of the stories, this love and support for each other is a powerful message that I think kids need more of in what they read.

If you’ve read these books, what are your thoughts on them? Do you agree with my views, or did you interpret them differently? Let me know in the comments!

Media Monday: Coming of age, a la Gogol

Media MondayHarder than rocks coverThe book: Harder Than Rocks by Victor Poole

The music: The Wall by Pink Floyd

I love classic Russian literature, especially the books where you think the author’s just being silly and then BAM he hits you with some profoundness that leaves you thinking about the book for weeks.

This week’s book is one of those books.

It follows this kid Samuel, whose life kinda sucks. He decides hey, screw it, and runs away from his crappy job, crappy motel room, and crappy life. He’s hungry, of course, so when he gets invited to a party by two random guys he of course eats all the food he’s offered – and falls in love with the hostess, of course. But she turns out to be kinda crazy, so he skips out on her. And then she turns out to be really crazy and sends a hitman after him, who ends up dying in a bathroom. The sheer absurdity of the story up until this point is very Gogolesque.

But then life comes back to Samuel, and shit gets real when you find out exactly what he’s trying to run from. And this is where the real genius of the writing comes in, because Poole presents a situation so tragic yet mundane that you can’t help but think that things won’t get better for Samuel, but you’re rooting for him just the same.

No spoilers here – just a recommendation to read one of the best books I’ve read in awhile.

This book pairs well with Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I’m sure you’ve heard “Another Brick in the Wall” on the radio ad nauseum, but have you ever listened to the whole album all the way through? It’s the struggle of a kid trying to overcome life – much like Samuel in Harder Than Rocks.

Media Monday: Strong women on a mission

Media MondayThe books: Where Carpets Fly by Elise Edmonds and Blood and Circuses by Aliya Smith

The music: “Sit Still, Look Pretty” by Daya

Lots of stories feature damsels in distress, even when it’s the main character. They wait for someone to save them, rather than saving themselves (and yes, my women’s fiction novel, Yours to Keep or Throw Aside, kinda fits into this). There’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes characters get swept along and the story is about them dealing with their life changes.

But other times, the female heroines want something and aren’t afraid to go after it, like in today’s two books.

In Where Carpets Fly, teenage Elina is super excited to go to the big city to learn magic. Granted, it’s so that she can someday return to her provincial village to make enchanted carpets with her father, but she’s determined to learn everything she can before being forced to return. Her plans are interrupted, however, when she and her best friend Kara accidentally stow away on a boat bound for a less-than-friendly country. Rather than bemoan their situation, the two friends are determined to make the best of it – until Kara gets arrested. Elina will stop at nothing to rescue her friend.

Blood and Circuses is set in ancient Rome. After her father is murdered, 10-year-old Lucilla and her sister are attacked while trying to flee the city. Lucilla manages to kill one attacker and fight off the other, but it’s not enough. She vows vengeance for her father, her nurse, her family, and her family’s honor. But being a warrior isn’t easy when society expects you to devote your life to your future husband and children. Lucilla defies expectations, fighting family pressures, volcanoes, jealous rivals, and even vampires (yes, vampires – I didn’t expect them in this story but they’re nicely done) until she’s able to get her revenge.

Although both books have very different settings and protagonists, they have one thing in common – you don’t want to mess with their female main characters because they kick ass.

Today’s song fits this theme. We’re not going to sit around, waiting for a guy to need us or help us out. We’re gonna rule the world, and Elina and Lucilla are off to a good start.

Media Monday: New takes on old fairy tales

Media MondayThe books: Steampunk Fairy Tales Vol 1, Steampunk Fairy Tales Vol II , and From the Stories of Old: A Collection of Fairy Tale Retellings

The music: Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Nine Inch Nails

I’m a huge fan of short stories. And I’m also generally too busy to read a whole book, so I love finding short story collections that introduce me to new authors. And fairy tales are just fun, so I was glad to find these three books, each of fairy tales.

The first two are steampunk versions of old tales (or steampunk stories inspired by fairy tales), while the third book is just new takes on fairy tales. And while at least a couple stories in each book are, unfortunately, barely mediocre, there are some real gems that stand out:

Leslie and David T. Allen have a fun story about a tiny samuri, “The Mech Oni and the Three-Inch Tinkerer,” who goes into the big world to rescue a damsel in distress. They follow up his story with a second one, “The Fairy Collector and the Three-Inch Samurai,” that’s just as good as the first one. Maybe it’s because I don’t know much about Japanese folklore, but these seemed to be some of the most original stories.

“Water of Life,” by Chris Champe, was another good one in vol II, about a mediocre prince who turns out to be better at questing than his older brothers. “Vasilisa and the Mechanical Matryoshka,” by Heather White, was a great adaptation of the Baba Yaga stories (which don’t get enough attention by Westerners).

Turning towards From the Stories of Old, “The Glass Maker” by Mckayla Eaton may have been the most original – a retelling of Cinderella with swapped gender roles. “Daughter of the Air,” by Renee Harvey, is another great twist on a favorite tale – what happens to the Little Mermaid after she becomes sea foam?

Altogether, these three anthologies are well worth the price for nearly 30 fairy tales that are each a new take on the familiar.

Today’s accompanying music is also a new twist on some old songs – the kid-friendly, lullaby renditions of Nine Inch Nails classics. The whole album is worth a listen, but this version of “Closer” is probably my favorite.

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