Tag: book review

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 2015:

  • 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.”


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.

Media Monday: War zones for kids

boy who speaks in numbers coverThe book: Th3 8oy Who 5p3ak5 1n Num83r5 by Mike Masilamani

The music: “When Universes Collide” by Gogol Bordello

A month ago I was browsing through the kids’ books section of a boutique in Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India, looking for books for my son. He loves myths and historical stuff, so I thought he’d enjoy kids books from another culture. I stumbled across this week’s book, Th3 8oy Who 5p3ak5 1n Num83r5. I thumbed through it, assumed it was a book about a dyslexic kid or something, and bought it without reading the back. I read it last week, thinking I could discuss it with my kid after he read it – and holy crap. It was not what I expected.

The story follows the unnamed title character as he navigates a refugee camp in war-torn Sri Lanka (I feel horrible for not knowing details about the Sri Lanka civil war; I remember hearing about the Tamil Tigers a few years ago, but I didn’t know much about them.

Well, turns out there was a major war. Tens of thousands killed, more displaced, and, like any war, both sides lying about what happened while blaming the other.

And that’s the best thing about this book – it really could be about a war and refugee camp anywhere in the world, from Latin America to Syria to Liberia, at any time in the last 50 years. Because to a child, the specifics don’t matter. All that matters is that his family and friends are gone, and he doesn’t know why. He had to leave his home, and he doesn’t know why. He’s hungry and scared, and everyone in charge is yelling, and he doesn’t know why.

My focus in my non-writing life is on child trauma in underprivileged populations. I spent a year at an elementary school with a large refugee population, with families from around the world. So when I read a book like this one, I marvel at the strength it took them to make it through alive and safe. And I cry that they had to experience those atrocities.

The song this week is by a gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello. This song is about war and what happens when you love someone on the wrong side. It’s not a direct match for Th3 8oy Who 5p3ak5 1n Num83r5 , but it’s complementary.

Media Monday: Deus ex machina in the Dark Tower

gunslinger poster

The Gunslinger features Idris Elba as Roland and Matthew McConaughey as Flagg – photo from EW.com

The books: The Dark Tower series by Stephen King

The music: “Bad Company” performed by Five Finger Death Punch

Like many (most? very few?) kids, I picked up my first Stephen King book in middle school. I’d read my way through the entire YA section and most of the sci-fi/fantasy section at my nearby library and branched out to horror with his Eyes of the Dragon, which first introduced me to Flagg, who also appeared in The Stand and, of course, The Dark Tower series.

I vaguely remember reading the first book in the series, The Gunslinger, in high school and not being too impressed. However, I kinda have a thing about reading the rest of a series if I’ve started it (I actually made it to Wheel of Time book 10 – the furthest of just about anyone I know), so I pushed on with The Drawing of the Three – which was pretty good. And they got better after that, with Wizards and Glass being pretty damn amazing, until they suddenly weren’t good at all, but I pushed on and the ending was worth it, because it was one of the best, most appropriate endings the series could have.

And then I got sidetracked to other authors, and into not really having time to read, and didn’t really think much about the series.

Until the powers that be decided to make it into a movie. A real movie, actually cast and happening, and not just rumors. I decided to reread the series.

A quick summary: Roland of Gilead is the last gunslinger, chasing a man in black across the desert in order to learn more about the dark tower and maybe get some revenge. He teams up with three people from our world -Eddie, Susannah, and Jake – and they go on a bunch of side quests while trying to save the tower, which is kinda the linchpin of all universes.

Here’s my thoughts on them (without specific spoilers):

Book I: The Gunslinger – It’s a lot better than I initially thought. It sets up Roland’s world nicely; minimal backstory but it’s still intriguing.

Book II: The Drawing of the Three – I like Eddie. I’m not impressed with Susannah. And I’m confused as to why they fall in love, other than what some kids described to me as “the airport phenomenon” – basically, you’ve been away from viable partners for so long, everyone becomes attractive, including people you’d never hook up with otherwise (1. Yes, I realize this has nothing to do with airports, and 2. We’d been out of the country for 2 weeks at this point). Applied to this book, it seems they fall in love because there’s no one else to have a relationship with. Nothing says “This relationship will last” like desperation.

Book III: The Wastelands – Nothing really happens in this book. A lot of walking. Interactions with new characters. Killing of some of those characters. And Flagg pops in.

Book IV: Wizard and Glass – So maybe King isn’t actually great at the love aspect of storytelling, because Roland and Susan also fall for each other because they’re there (and because of teen hormones). This book is a wonderful flashback to when Roland was a teen with visible emotions, and it nicely sets him up as a badass adult. This book is also probably the best in the series.

Book V: Wolves of the Calla – Much like book 3, there’s a lot of walking. Interactions with new characters. Killing of some of those characters. This is also where the deus ex machina begins to ramp up. “Oh, hey, let’s just time travel and leave ourselves notes so that everything will turn out peachy.” Also, the end of this book starts the “Holy crap, what the hell does he think he’s doing?” reactions.

Book VI: Song of Susannah – More time travel/world hopping. At this point, you’re pretty much reading because you’ve already invested so much, you may as well finish the series. King is starting to tie threads from all his stories together, but then he kinda just craps out. Maybe he’s spent all his creative energy on other books.

Book VII: The Dark Tower – So, you wanted everything wrapped up? Sure. And then let’s throw in a new character in the last 100 pages of a 7-book series spanning over 4000 pages, and let’s give him a magic ability that miraculously saves the day. Ugh. But at least the ending was perfect.

Overall: The series is well worth the read. Sure, it drags at some points. Some of the cameos are beyond stupid (you know who I’m talking about, Stephen King). And there’s a lot of moments where things wrap up too nicely due to “serendipitously” having the right object and being in the right place at the right time, because they went back and warned themselves and planted items. But King’s worldbuilding is second to none, a nice blend of fantasy and post-apocalypse and now for a setting in “a world that has moved on.” I strongly recommend reading the books, before the movies come out.

The music of this is Five Finger Death Punch’s cover of Bad Company’s “Bad Company.” Because Roland and his pals and gunslingers first. They have their own code of honor, but they won’t hesitate to gun you down if you get in the way of their quest for the tour.

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