Tag: book review

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.

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.

Media Monday: Steampunk fun with H.L. Burke

Nyssa Glass coverThe books: The Nyssa Glass series by H.L. BurkeThe House of Mirrors, The Juliet Dilemma, The Cutpurse Kid, Clockwork Christmas, and The Electric Heart

The music: “Sacra” by Apocalyptica

H.L. Burke made her mark with dragons (the Dragon and the Scholar series), then moved onto a fantasy series about elemental beings competing to take over the human world. Her Nyssa Glass series marks a departure from fantasy, into steampunk. However, her main character is still the same – a strong female who isn’t going to let anything stand in the way of her goals.

And Nyssa has a lot standing in her way. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised by an uncle who forced her into a life of petty crime. She managed to escape (before the series begins) and reform her life, but just as things were getting turned around for her, she was forced back into that life. This time, though, she wasn’t going down without a fight.

The rest of the books in the series detail her attempts to stay honest despite her past following her around. She makes some friends along the way that support her based on who she is, not what she did, giving this series a good moral for its readers.

The five books in the series are a quick read that would be great for anyone looking for an imperfect yet strong female role model.

The books are a bit dark at times – there’s a lot of violence – so for the song I picked this instrumental number by Apocalyptica. Generally I try to match song lyrics to book themes, but in this case the music sets a fitting tone for the series.

Media Monday: A cult, a heist, some romance – and a manatee

tangled coverThe book: Tangled Ties to a Manatee by Kalen Cap

The music: “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur” by Sigur Rós

Tangled Ties to a Manatee takes us through the interconnected lives of a large cast of characters – college students who work at a group home where the nephew of a wildlife retreat owner/director lives, and some of the college kids’ friends work there too. The residents of the group home like to go to the local zoo, where the ex-wife of a professor at the college works. And one of the retreat employees is actually a private investigator undercover because some people think it’s a cult, and her supervisor is undercover at a coffee shop where the professor’s brother works and so does that nephew. Oh, and the husband of one of the cultists works at the zoo too, and one of the college students is also a fortune teller for the cult leader. And then a couple guys come along trying to run a scam using the wildlife retreat, but a pregnant manatee named Ankh manages to save the day.

Got it?

Although confusing at times, the author skillfully brings it all together throughout a plot that’s reminiscent of a PG-rated Big Trouble (which is an awesome movie you should definitely watch). The only thing I’d want changed is to spend more time on a few main characters, rather than a little time on everyone. However, each character has his or her own voice and personality, and each contributes something to the storyline.

Overall, a fun, light read that I highly recommend.

As for the song – I’m on a bit of an Icelandic kick recently, from their Viking heritage to their modern day politics and awesome music. One of my favorite Icelandic bands, Skálmöld, just released a new album this week and included a cover of one of my favorite songs by one of my other favorite Icelandic bands, Sigur Rós. It’s a fun song, to pair along with a fun book.

(Also, Sigur Rós aren’t really Vikings but Skálmöld are. Not that that has anything to do with this week’s book or song.)

Media Monday: It’s pretty and well-written, but…

The books: The whole Anne of Green Gables series by LM Montgomery

The music: “Big Bird in a Small Cage” by Patrick Watson

PEI

Grounds at the Anne of Green Gables Museum, PEI

Earlier this month I wandered up through New England to the Maritime Provinces. I was especially excited to get to Prince Edward Island, home to a couple book series I enjoyed as a kid: the Anne of Green Gables series and the Emily series, both by LM Montgomery.

PEI is beautiful: gently rolling fields of wheat and potatoes interspersed with small groves of trees, farmhouses with the sea in the distance, little villages with charming little houses. But after a couple hours driving around (from the bridge at Borden-Carleton up to Cavendish), we were bored out of our minds and ready to go back to New Brunswick, where we’d set up camp for a few days.

I’ve been rereading the Anne of Green Gables books since I got back, and they’re yet another series from my childhood that I would’ve been better off leaving to my memories. In case you’re not familiar with them, they follow Anne Shirley, a little-red headed orphan adopted by an aging brother and sister. She grows from lovable scamp to lovable adult. Everyone who meets her either loves her at first sight or grows to love her (or at least like her a lot). She solves the problems of everyone she comes across, especially when it comes to relationships. Despite her faults (a temper, having a way too active imagination), she’s the ultimate Mary Sue – perfect, with nothing bad ever happen. The books are more a collection of vignettes of her life and the characters in it, rather than vignettes.

As for the prose, dear God but it’s purple. Going on and on about sunsets and trees and beauty – beauty everywhere. Everyone wants to be beautiful and wear beautiful clothes, as if there’s no more to life than beauty.

Contrast this another series by Montgomery, the Emily books: Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest. Emily goes through all kinds of defeats in life (illness, broken engagements, fights with friends, relatives who hate her) and is determined, by the end, to accept her fate and die alone. Emily is keeping it real.

PEI doesn’t focus on Emily, however. It focuses its attention on Anne – the pretty but boring Anne, who has adventures but you know everything will work out for her so you really don’t care after awhile.

The song doesn’t really fit with the books but it fits with my impressions of PEI. I heard it while driving through Manitoba this summer. It’s pretty but unmemorable, because I really just don’t care about the bird or its cage.

Media Monday: teen horror by Erik Therme

resthavenThe book: Resthaven by Erik Therme

The music: “Mine” by Disturbed

If I, as a rational adult, were pressured to break into an abandoned nursing home in order to appear cool in front of my peers that I didn’t even really like, there’s a good chance I’d have a brief two word response and then I’d promptly leave. Same if I were pressured into having a scavenger hunt in that same creepy building.

The plot of Resthaven, however, revolves around teenagers doing teenage things – like breaking into said creepy nursing home. Once inside, either in order to look cool or simply because their frontal cortexes are far from fully developed, those teens continue making irrational – but wholly teen-logical – decisions in a quick-read story packed with thrills and surprises at every turn.

The story starts out with new girl Kaylee arriving at her classmate Jamie’s house for a routine sleepover, only Jamie strong arms the girls into exploring Resthaven, an old empty nursing home. She promptly gets mad at them and abandons them to a night of horror.

I kind of expected the book to be more supernatural, but the fully-human villain is even scarier than a ghost or monster. Every twist is possible, if not plausible, as Kaylee and her friends find themselves deeper and deeper in a mess that rivals any 90s teen horror flick.

As for the music – on of my son’s favorite bands is Disturbed, so we’ve been listening to a lot of their CDs to get ready for his first rock concert (Disturbed and Breaking Benjamin last night in St. Louis – it was awesome). The music from the song really fits the mood of the book. The lyrics don’t fit very well, but since you can’t really understand what the guy’s saying half the time, it doesn’t really matter.

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