Category: Book Reviews (page 3 of 3)

Reviews of books I’ve read

"Beloved" by Toni Morrison: Lessons I Learned

Just finished Beloved by Toni Morrison. Having read it, I learned three important lessons.

First, as I mentioned in a previous post, I learned from Morrison that accents do not have to be written in a degrading format. Throughout history, when journalists or political leaders wished to make opposition sound stupid, illiterate, and/or unreliable, they wrote quotations verbatim. If it was a thick Boston accent, quotations would exclude end of word “r’s” and add them where they otherwise wouldn’t go. Urban speakers lose “g” at the end of every -ing word.

Morrison’s main character is the epitome of underprivileged and illiterate: a black “freed” slave woman in the 1860’s. But Morrison does not resort to this degradation. She allows the disrespect from whites in the U.S. speak for itself. But, Morrison also does not disregard the fact that her characters have strong Southern and Southern Black accents of the time period. Instead, she uses a technique of word choice and grammar of the characters’ dialog to bring forth one’s accent. While reading her dialog, the reader quickly begins to read the passages with the accents.

Morrison gives a double whammy. She does not insult the characters. But she also does not insult the reader.

Second thing I learned is that Nobel Prize for Literature winners are AWESOME.

I’ve now knowingly read two: José Saramago and Toni Morrison.

Not only do I gain insight to the craft of fiction writing not attainable from typical fiction authors, but I feel genuinely satisfied after reading their work. It’s as if I’ve just finished drinking a cool glass of lemonade on a hot summer afternoon. It physically feels this way. Satisfaction fills my innards.

Thirdly, Nobel Prize for Literature winners are TOUGH TO READ.

I say this from someone who loves reading literary works and classic texts. José Saramago is one of my favorite fiction writers of all time. But his style of writing can be a bit, how shall I say, uninviting. His sentences go on for paragraphs. His paragraphs go on for pages. He never uses quotation marks. So you never know who’s speaking (he does this on purpose so he can screw with you). And he uses periods so infrequently you’d think he had to pay for each one he typed.

Toni Morrison’s style in Beloved slowed me down. It took me two weeks to read it. The dialog was not second-nature to me, as it probably shouldn’t be. Above all this, I couldn’t tell if 124 was actually haunted, if it was all in Sethe’s mind, or if it was all in my mind. Again, I’m sure this was done on purpose. I struggled to even know which part of the timeline I was engaged in. Perhaps this too was done on purpose to show “once a slave always a slave” irrespective of “freedom” status. Or perhaps, I’m just not a versed enough reader to wrap my head around it.

Next on my agenda is Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry. I was going to read Tepper. But I need something a little less engaging. Also, I’m learning how to write grants, so I’m reading lots of dry non-fiction grant writing mumbo jumbo.

Review of "Black Sheep: Letting Go of the Past" by Kia Zi Shiru

Remember two weeks ago I featured a burgeoning author on my blog? Kia Zi Shiru? In that feature, we discussed her writing and also talked about the release of Book Two in the Black Sheep series: Black Sheep: Loving in the Present. Because I tend to read more than one thing at a time, and am quite a slow reader, I finally finished Part One of that series: Black Sheep: Letting Go of the Past. Here is a review.

Anyone who knows my reviews knows that I don’t give summaries. Summaries are dull. When I read a review, I don’t care about plot. If I wanted that, I’d find the Spark’s Notes on the piece or go to Wikipedia. I want to know if I should read it and what I should watch for. Therefore, that’s what you get here. Check out Shiru’s page for summaries of each book and reviews that dig a little deeper.

As mentioned in a previous post, Black Sheep is a Young Adult novella series with an LGBT slant. But don’t let the LGBT slant scare you off. Vic, Jack, Anne, and the lot of characters draw you into the confusing world of all our teenage years regardless of one’s own orientation.

To be fair, however, this YA read might not be for all young readers. The language can get a little coarse for a YA read (as these are teenagers living in the real world) and adult themes like sexuality, self-destruction, and LIFE  play out. Then again, books that don’t skirt the line between YA and inappropriate don’t belong in the genre in the beginning. Parts some parents will find offensive are true to the core. Only parents trying to protect their children from life will find offense.

The dark realities of teen life come out in buckets. Shiru lets us into the Vic’s life slowly. But with each new sliver of information comes a torrent of pain. In a good way, if one can call it such. I had zero problem falling hard for these characters. I even had to put it down briefly on the bus to keep from tearing up at one point. In the comfort of my own apartment, crying is OK. Public transit is another story.

I look forward to reading Book Two. I can only assume her writing voice has sharpened since finishing Letting Go of the Past. After reading her first novel, I’m comfortable saying with authority that Shiru will be a name to watch for in the coming years.

Disclosure: Kia Zi Shiru and I are acquaintances as fellow Google+’ers and writers. She neither paid me for this nor gave me anything except a thank you for this review. However, I did win a contest several weeks ago…of which many participated…and I won an ebook copy of this book. 

Black Sheep: Book Release and ebook discount!

Burgeoning author, Kia Zi Shiru, just released her second dark YA novel in a series that follows the young Vic on his trek to find love while finding himself. Along with this Book Release comes a 66% discount on Book One!!!

Having chatted with Shiru several times, I’m honored to feature her newest novel, “Black Sheep: Loving in the Present“. I had a chance to ask Shiru a few questions about her book, her previous books, and even upcoming books!

What possessed you to write YA LGBT stories? 

I like to read them, and I often find it easier to identify with them. Don’t ask how that works, it does. Black Sheep hasn’t been my first try at gay characters but it is the first one the world got to see. But the lack of LGBT books in the library or to be found online was what made me push through with writing Black Sheep until the end.

Is this your first attempt at novel length writing?

Shiru: No, I’ve got a scifi story that reaches over 40k that I worked on for most of my teenage years. But since it’s written in Dutch I abandoned it when I realised there was no big market for them. English is a bigger market so that is why Black Sheep has been totally written in English.

Tell me a bit about your short story collection that’s also on Amazon?

Shiru: Magical Roads, yes. It’s a collection of stories about teens in a magical world. They are both realistic and magical at the same time. The stories deal with things like growing up, traditions and making your own choices. I wrote these stories for my classes at university and thought it was a good idea to share them since a lot of people seem to love them.

I know you’re rather busy with school, but do you have any plans for other novels or short story collections in the near future?

Shiru: Honestly? I’ve got a full year coming up. Not only am I doing my last year of my bachelor I’m also doing my masters next year. But that doesn’t stop me. The third book in the Black Sheep trilogy comes out in April and then the collection in May. After that I’ve got 2 series I’ll be starting during the rest of the year. Though they are for a slightly higher age range than the Black Sheep Trilogy.

Given the natural gravitation toward sexuality in your book, how do you think your books fit into the YA category? 

Shiru: I don’t see sexuality being a problem to being included in the YA category. There are more and more books published for LGBT teens. The thing is that sexuality doesn’t have a lot to do with actual sex. Black Sheep Trilogy deals with some shocking subjects but in relation to sex it doesn’t go any further than a bit of groping over each other’s clothes and some kissing. It wasn’t on purpose that I chose to do this, it seemed wrong to actually let them go further than that with all the body issues the main character deals with. Of all the books I think the first one is the most steamy one.

I don’t think there is a problem of putting Black Sheep in the YA category, since that category is full of teen mum books anyway. In comparison to that, Black Sheep is very clean.

Of course, what you all REALLY want is the DISCOUNT!!!!
EBOOK DISCOUNT: As an added bonus, “Black Sheep: Letting go of the Past” (Part One in the series) is will be a mere $0.99 starting today and running through February 25!!!

So, what is “Black Sheep: Loving in the Present?” Here’s it is in Shiru’s words:

Vic has taken a turn for the worse and is back in the psychiatric hospital. Jack gets kicked out of his house when his parents find out that he is gay. The reason Adam is not getting better is revealed. And that is just the beginning.

Everybody is lost and trying to not let it spiral out of control. Jack moves in with Vic’s family, making it his temporary home until he can move in with his brother and sister. Vic’s health doesn’t improve until he hears about Adam, at which point he put his mind to getting better. Adam on the other hand is fighting his own feelings about Vic’s illness and questions their friendship.

When Vic and Jack visit Adam and Tom for Tom’s birthday, it seems like a great way to let loose, but Vic is hiding more secrets than anyone knew and when they are exposed the situation explodes. Vic storms off in anger and seeks solace in dangerous places and, unknowingly, putting not just himself, but Jack too at risk.

EXCERPT: Get hooked now with a short teaser here

And who is this mysterious author???

Kia Zi Shiru is a Dutch girl studying English and Creative Writing in the UK. Amongst her interests she finds writing, reading, doing research and learning different languages (including but not limited to: English, Dutch, French, German, HTML, Java, PHP and Assembly). Her writing and reading habits include books with Young Adults, gay themes, strong female or minority characters and fantasy elements (more often then not all at the same time).

Too lazy to hunt her books down? Here are all the links!
Purchase Black Sheep: Loving in the Present from the following:
In the U.S.:
In the U.K.:
Anywhere: Smashwords or Kobo

As one might suspect, you can purchase Part One or Part Two in eBook and/or paperback forms. Shiru also has a short story collection available from the same sites mentioned above. 

Best of luck to Shiru! From my reading of Book One, this is only the beginning of a long and great novel writing career. If you’ve read this far, I strongly encourage you to support this new Indie author. 

Disclosure: Kia Zi Shiru and I are acquaintances on Google+ and fellow writers (though she’s published, I’m not). I received no compensation for this post (unless you count the ‘thank you’).

A Handmaid’s Tale: A Look at Dystopian Novels

Because there are more than a pleasant share of reviews of this dystopian novel, I’m going to go in a different direction and provide some thoughts I had as I read Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.

My main thought is about the dystopian novel itself, as a genre. Not only are dystopian novels common, they are prominent in literature, taught in schools, read in book clubs, revered by conspiracy nuts and theorists, and loved by most who consider themselves high minded.

Most of you realize that dystopian novels are a type of speculative fiction. They point to the absurdity of certain social norms. In many cases they point to the contradictions of social, ecological, economic, gender, and technological mores. Authors of dystopian stories yell at their reader, “Look what we’re doing! Look at where we’re headed! Change before it’s too late!”

But most of you probably don’t think of dystopia stories as short sighted. I do.

I give my reasoning in a story of my own, a true story.

When I was still in graduate school, I went to a talk.I don’t remember the focus, but I do remember the title and synopsis suggested it was about Marxism, the working man, and society in today’s world. What it actually turned into was an “academic” talk about how today’s world is full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and that we need to find a path back to the “Good ole days.”

Sans myself and two other graduate student I went with, there were no participants under the age of 50. The “take away” message was that we’ve fallen from decency. What we need to do is somehow find a way back to the 40s and 50s where people were pure, the economy was great, patriotism was important, and politicians were human.

What all the participants of this talk seemed to do (the three of us excluded) was to romanticize the world they grew up in. All the while, they forgot that young women were shipped off the an “aunts” house when they shamed their family by getting pregnant in high school. They forgot the beginnings of the Cold War where children practiced Nuclear War drills! They forgot that men knifed each other for looking at “their” girls. They forgot the ideal of the pregnant and barefoot wife in the kitchen.They forgot about racial segregation and women’s rights movements and race riots. To be fair, there were no non-whites in the room.

Dystopian novels follow this same arch. Though they point out particular inconsistencies and absurdities about society and civilization as a whole, they all pine and romanticize for a bygone era.

Margaret Atwood is one of the few I’ve come across that doesn’t do this. Atwood does not romanticize about the world she grew up in or lives in now. She doesn’t demonize the futuristic speculative, arguably (il)logical conclusion to the puritan U.S. social culture any more than she demonizes “the way things were” in her book.

Rather, Atwood suggests that in the world we live in, society men have created an manufactured dichotomy of options.

Option One: Men have the “freedom to.

Option Two: Women can have the “freedom from.

That is it. Essentially, recognizes that men have “given women the choice.” Women can choose to be subjugated to men’s sexual urges and turned into objects of sexual appeal and toys for their men’s own sexual pleasure. Or, women can choose to be hidden from men entirely in a puritan fashion. Of course, this means men still have to procreate, so they choose non-sexual women to have non-sexual intercourse.

Either way, women are subjugated.

My feminist hat off to you, Atwood. Not that you need me to tell you, but you understand the world better than most.

Disclosure: I neither know Atwood (though I wish I did, and I do follow her on Twitter) nor was I paid for this post. 

Book Review: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

In my final trot through the zombie novel pumpkin patch, I finished “Warm Bodies,” a relatively new novel by Isaac Marion. In six months, it will be released as a movie of the same name. Here is my book review:

First off, as both of my readers know, I don’t give synopses of books I read. If you want to know what HAPPENS in a book, read the damn book. My reviews only tell what was good, what was bad, and if you should read the novel in the first place.

Marion’s portrait of zombies is not new. They are dead, or undead. They feed off humans, eat brains, and are generally pretty stupid beings that hunt in packs. The first person angle is not entirely new to this genre any longer either. I refer you to Joan Frances Turner’s “Dust“. Since “Warm Bodies” came out but a year later, I hold no negative here for Marion. Frankly, the first person zombie thing is still avant garde enough  to be highly entertaining when done correctly, which it is here.

“Warm Bodies” is much closer to a typical zombie story. The main zombie character is a twenty (or thirty)-something lazy guy who just shuffles through life until he eats the brain (thereby gaining the memories of) a young man in love. Enter love interest Stage Right.

I have a terrible feeling that the movie that debuts February of 2013 will be very much like “Twilight” with teenage puppy love and an angry dad leading to a Romeo and Juliet meets Shawn of the Dead plot. If so, I’ll be disappointed, but the vast majority of readers of this book won’t be.

The end concept (which I won’t spoil) is interesting. Given the direction the rest of the book, however, it was both predicable yet disappointingly necessary. For those seeking a Happily Ever After zombie story, this is your book. For those wanting a dreary apocalyptic world, move on.

Marion clearly understands both the zombie genre itself and the present obsession with paranormal love and sex. Part of me wants to hate this book for that very reason. Yet, when in Rome. Once he is discovered by the masses, Marion will explode onto the scene much the same way Meyer did with Twilight. This will be especially true if he has sequels in mind.

All his characters are very well fleshed out. It was a fast-paced read that does provide much for many a reader. If you want true zombie death and gore, it’s here. Of course, I might read “Dust” if that was your soul purpose. If you want something new to the zombie genre, you get love, first person goodness, and a Day of the Dead concept well done here. If you just want a good read irrespective of genre, this is also a great start. If you want another book like Twilight without the disturbing tween sex scenes, this again is your book.

Overall, I would read another book by Isaac Marion. It is clear we should expect great things from him in the future.

Zombies! Done Right

In an effort to understand the genre I’m pretending to write in, I’ve read some zombie stories. The first was “Autumn” by David Moody which came from a recommendation list I found online. You can view that earlier review post here. Second on my reading trek was “Dust” by Joan Frances Turner. Here is my review of her zombie story, which happens to also be her first book.

Most complaints about Turner’s “Dust” that I’ve found online via or pertain to the tough stomach needed to read such gruesome descriptions. To be fair, this is a very descriptive book when it comes to the life and death of the living, unliving, undead, and all those we find in between. It is not for the squeamish. However, no description is over the top or unnecessary.

For a truly over the top plastering of descriptions that probably don’t need to be there, one only need to look to the author of “Fight Club,” Chuck Palahniuk. Now, I’ve never read “Fight Club” as it’s never at the library. But I’ve read two other lesser known of his novels (“Survivor” which I thought was brilliant all around and reminded me of “American Psycho” meets TMZ; and “Snuff” which as the title suggests was not for the faint of heart to say the least).

Turner doesn’t do this. Rather than give you a zombie story of gun toting heroes blowing the heads off valueless zombies, she provides a realistic look (as much as one can give with a fictional occurrence) at life in this fictional world. The descriptions are necessary. Similar to “Room” by Emma Donoghue where you get the story from a 5 year old. The description is so natural, but you know pretty quick that what the child is witnessing but not comprehending is the repeated rape of his mother. Turner’s description flows naturally from the character.

“Dust” is a first person zombie story from the point of view of a teenage girl who died before her time. The entire book gives a realistic taste of what such a life would be like. There is no good or bad, only truth. Truth is, they are undead beings. They rot.

Turner takes a classic horror genre and gives it new life. Rather than providing a straightforward zombie story like David Moody, Turner uses the zombie identity to look at life, death, and the human condition. Had Turner used old geriatric patients instead of zombies, people would complain she made old women look disgusting by talking about their incontinence, the way gravity works on the body, and how they literally fall apart at the seams rather than only look at how beautiful the end of life is.

Death is not pretty. Neither is life most of the time. Turner does for the horror novel what Matheson did decades ago.

This novel does have a bizarre second half where the feel of the story changes dramatically, and the end is predictable once you enter the realm of the second half of this story. That said, the ending was appropriate. Anything different would have negated the grotesque first half. This is not only a well-written first novel. This is a solid novel, period.

Zombies! From another perspective

I’ve now read two very different zombie stories written in the last two decades. First was David Moody’s “Autumn”, a highly acclaimed zombie author; and Joan Frances Turner’s “Dust”, a first novel for this burgeoning author. Here is my review for Moody, Turner deserves a separate post.

First David Moody.

Highly excited by the hype behind this six book series and the movies spawned by his novels, I confess myself disappointed.

The hype of Moody’s novels I can only assume come from his “pull yourself up from your bootstraps” appeal. Moody first released his books in free ebook form for all his pre-publication followers days. Looking at Moody this way there are two things to compliment. First, kudos for giving your readers what they want. Many of today’s authors will hold on to their material like it’s pure gold. Now, I’m not one to suggest all writers should put their books out there for free as we all go read our free book at the coffee shop where we buy our $4 latte. NO! I’m say, if you’re a struggling author, he knows how to sell himself.

Which leads to the second compliment: Moody knows the marketing. Few artists realize that art comes with two parts: the art and the marketing. You can say all you want that you’re an artist and that others need to do the marketing part. Them’s the words of the unpublished and jealous. Making money in any field, including fiction writing requires tons of selling your soul to the Devil incarnate.

Now, that’s pretty much where my compliments of Moody dies an untimely death.

Moody’s actual writing is subpar. I wish  couldn’t say this. But it’s true. And I’ll use two specific complaints to drill my point home. First, all his characters have the exact same voice. If you don’t know how bad this can tear apart a story and dislocate the reader from the text, read this book. You’ll constantly wonder, who the hell is talking? Autumn is not his first novel either, so this book shows the lack of editing on the part of a trained writer (And I realize the irony of my writing this in an unedited blog…which is where Moody also got his start).

Second, Moody’s story does nothing but tell a story. Wait! What? That’s right. It does nothing but tell a simple story. Why is this a complaint? Because, no great story is JUST A story. Even the most basic and most juvenile stories come with lessons learned or subjects contemplated.

An example I commonly give is Harry Potter. A great children’s story through and through. It is a story FIRST! But it comes with ethnic conflict, good versus evil (and the gray area in between), race relations, gender roles, and basic child angst.

Give me something more!

Every great story ever told comes with more than JUST A story. “Just a” stories are the sign of a truly amateur storyteller. Matheson’s horror stories had reasons for their existence BEYOND scaring the reader. Ellis wrote about a narcissistic A-hole in “American Psycho” because he saw that that was what the American elite culture was breeding. Some feminists misinterpreted this as male hatred of women. Many feminists saw Ellis for what he truly wrote, which is why a female director turned that book into a movie. Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series is more than a creepy serial killer who kills serial killers. His character understands the human condition even better than the humans he claims he does not relate to.

Writing a “just a” story separates the writers from the authors. Sadly, I find myself among the former struggling to make it into the latter.

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