Book Review – The Shadows (Dark Sentinels, Book One)

You know what I haven’t done in a while? A book review.

Tim, you did one in April.

Huh. So I did. Well I haven’t done many of them.

This will be your sixth.

Uh…well it’s not like I’ve done any other revi…

What about this one?

Goddammit. Am I becoming a reviewer?

Not yet, but you’re on your way.

 

…also, if you’re looking for an update on the book charity drive, that’ll come later this week or early next week. Anyway, on with the review.


Full disclosure on this review — I received an advanced reader copy of The Shadows. While I’m not receiving any sort of compensation for writing this review, I am quite shamelessly helping the author promote this book as I can on Twitter. This is partly because she’s been a writer/creator I’ve held a lot of respect for for quite some time now1Yes, I know there’s a double for there. It’s also grammatically correct.. It’s also partly because The Shadows is a damn good book.

Oh…uh…review spoilers in that previous paragraph2Since people get all bent out of shape for spoilers. Which…stop that..

As a reader, I have a decently wide range of books I like to read. With that said, one of the original book genres that I really got into when I started caring about reading was the Young Adult genre. In particular, I tended to prefer Young Adult dystopian novels3Think “Feed” by M.T. Anderson., however I wasn’t opposed to reading pretty much anything in the genre, aside from heavy romance4Still can’t stand heavy romance novels now, regardless of if they’re young adult books or not. For whatever reason, many romance writers struggle to write good plot..

That said, it’s been quite some time since I’ve really sat down and read a YA novel. The only one I’ve read in the past three years was Mila 2.0 which, while a good book, wasn’t one that I actively went out of my way to recommend to others to read. On top of that, when the book’s concept was original ran by me, it was stated to be a young adult paranormal sci-fi book. The closest I’ve come to caring about paranormal things is my love for Chandelure and Froslass in the Pokemon games. Needless to say the book had a chance of being outside of my wheelhouse.

Here’s the thing though…I loved the book.

The main character of this book, Roz, is a very relatable character in my mind. Anyone who has gone through the challenges of living as a child in a single parent household will have some level of empathy for Roz’s situation, particularly the frustrations of her mother not being around. The other major characters of the story also seem to jump off of the page — in particular Derek, who is more of a secondary character in the book, but has a very distinct way of speaking, to the point where I feel like I know exactly what his voice sounds like in my head.

The characters themselves form a diverse, multicultural cast, which is always a pleasure to see in a book. It’s something I know from personal experience can be a struggle for writers, so seeing someone handle it successfully is always a positive. The paranormal entities in the book also stick around in your mind for a while, particularly Diego and the book’s main antagonist5It’s hard to explain exactly what this specter is without spoiling, so that’s all you’re getting..

The Shadows is definitely a setup book. You can tell the book is doing its best to introduce you to the main characters of the story, the intricacies of the world around them, the gravity of the challenges they’re facing, and the relationships between the characters themselves. You can also tell that there’s going to be more books in this series coming down the line. And yet, even though you can, as a reader, surmise that as the book is winding down, the only feeling you’re left with is sadness that the book is ending and you don’t get to know what happens next. Having a preview of the second book at the end was particular cruel — not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I wanted to know more.

I was able to get through The Shadows in a single evening, though I was a bit distracted, so quick readers might be able to finish it in just a few hours. It’s not that The Shadows is a particularly short read — the ebook version I had was around 290 pages — it’s that it’s a captivating read that you won’t want to put down. I cannot recommend The Shadows highly enough. Not only would I encourage those of you reading this interview to buy the book, I would also say that many of you, like me, will find it to be one of your favorite books you’ll read this year.

Book Review – Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire) by Jen Glantz

Before I start reviewing this book, I have a pair of disclaimers to give. First and foremost, hearing Jen’s story about getting her previous book, All My Friends are Engaged, from idea to self-published work helped inspire me to take my short stories and turn them into a book. It was a significant enough of an inspiration that I felt like a complete asshole when I forgot to put her in my thank yous section of the book, even though I’ve never met her in person. She wrote a guest post for my blog, I wrote one for hers, and we would occasionally chat on Twitter/20SB. But I still felt terrible. The second disclaimer is that I don’t like weddings. Or stories about weddings. Or pretty much anything wedding related. Weddings are (generally) long, boring affairs with similarly long and boring receptions. They’re expensive and frequently cause the newly married couple financial problems because you want to throw a good party for your friends and family6Or something. I personally don’t see the need for weddings to be opulent affairs, but I get why people might feel it’s necessary..

Now to begin…

Even when taking into consideration my dislike for wedding-related subject matter, there’s not a ton I have to complain about in Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire). If anything, the first quarter of the book reads a bit slower than the rest of the book, though I think that’s natural as Jen is setting up the context for the rest of the book to make sense. Considering how much she talked about her family early on, I expected her to mention them more as the book went on. Other than her mom, most other family members are only mentioned occasionally after the first 60 or so pages. Which is totally fine, as you get into more of Jen’s personal experiences — just a bit unexpected.

My wife actually stole this book from me right after I got it, meaning she got the chance to read it before I had even opened it up. She mentioned that she expected it to be more about wedding and bridesmaid stories, particularly from the title of the book and the summary blurb on the back. If you’re reading Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire) for an abundance of wedding stories, you’re likely going to be let down a bit. I remember reading a review of the book saying that Jen should have waited until later in life to write this so she’d have more wedding stories, however I think that such a point of view misses the entire point of the book.

Yes, Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire) is a book that talks about weddings and talks about the experience of being a bridesmaid. That much is definitely true. But this book is not a wedding book. It’s a business book masquerading in a wedding book’s body7Much in the same way every member of a wedding party is a complex human masquerading as part of the theatre that is a wedding.. In this book, you’re going to get great advice about risk-taking and failure, about determination and effort, about openness and learning from your mistakes. The concept of learning how to fail like a hero stuck with me far more than the stories of chasing down a lost bridesmaid’s dress.

There was one line in the book that stuck out to me far more than any other, not just because of its profound nature, but also because of the truth it’s held in my life.

Maybe that’s the strange thing about strangers: they have just as much control over how your story ends.

-Jen Glantz, Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire)

Recently I found myself contemplating how people can change our lives for better and worse just be being in our lives. It’s kind of interesting to think how one day you could meet someone who has never been part of your life before, only for them to become the person who changes your life — either positively or negatively — for good. Or that stranger could just be a person you pass on the street who you’ll never see or interact with ever again. But you don’t know. And you don’t know the impact each person will make until well after that impact has been made.

I’d recommend Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire), particular as a book that tells the story of a young woman looking to make her own impact on the world, while also trying to find who and what in the world will make an impact on her. It’s not a business or philosophy book in a traditional sense, however if you’re looking for thoughts on either, I think you’ll find this book surprisingly helpful.

Book Review – Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Author’s Note: The following book review was previously published on my old blog on June 9th, 2014. The majority of the content of this post has remained the same from the review at that time, however references to a giveaway associated with said review have been amended accordingly.

 

Disclaimer: The following book review is part of Random House’s book review campaign for the novel “Lucky Us” by Amy Bloom. All opinions in this post remain my own, as no one else could be paid to claim them.

So in writing this review, I find myself in a first time situation on a couple of different fronts. While this isn’t the first time I’ve done a book review, this is the first novel I’ve had the opportunity to review pre-release. Likewise, the is the first book review I’ve done that is any sort of promotion for someone else’s writing. As such, I’m working to find a balance between the objective/promotional side of my writing and the cynical/sarcastic/general buffoonery of my normal writing. I might as well get used to it though — there’s a chance someone could be doing this for me some day.

There’s an old saying that states you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. From a metaphorical standpoint, the idiom is reminding you that just because someone or something looks a certain way, it doesn’t mean that’s their inner personality. Apparently, that cliché applies to actual books too. Who knew?

Lucky Us by Amy BloomThe back cover of Lucky Us made the novel sound like a cheap mashup between The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath, combining the low points of both novels to create a cheesy coming of age story about two girls seeking adventure. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), the actual story of the book didn’t give off that vibe at all.

Lucky Us focuses on the story of a young woman, Eva, and her struggle to truly find a group of people she can call her family. Along the way, she has various people in her life who are family in the literal sense — a con artist father whose fake Britishness is second only to Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, a mother who abandoned her so that she could live out her lifelong dream of becoming the female Joel Osteen, and a lesbian half-sister, Iris, who, despite being the most relatable and believable character in the book, was largely absent due to her own pursuits for fame, fortune, and love.

While she spent much of the book looking for the stability of a family, it wasn’t until Eva realized that she could be a self-sufficient person (albeit while caring for Iris’ adopted/stolen son, Danny) that Eva began to find a family. While acting as the mother she never had to Danny, Eva found a father figure in one of Iris’ former makeup artists, and a lover/husband in a German man (Gus) who had been deported under false pretenses during World War II. Oh, did I mention said man was also the ex-husband of Iris’ lesbian lover with whom she adopted Danny?

At least Bugs could follow which way everyone went. Image credit: storiesspace.com

I actually have very few criticisms of the book, however that final sentence highlights my biggest concern. The majority of the characters throughout the book intertwine in rather convoluted ways. At times, keeping track of who is who, who likes/hates who, and who wants who is a bit difficult. Not quite Grey’s Anatomy pre-Lexi Gray’s death difficult, but still pretty damn confusing.

My other qualm with the book came from the book’s ending. Initially, I hated the ending. Eva’s estranged sister returns from England, and everyone lives happily ever after. That said, once I began really analyzing the book, the happy ending where Eva gets her family just feels right. That said, the ending felt a bit rushed, particularly Gus’ return and integration within the picture. Even with that in mind, it’s a minor gripe.

Lucky Us will be released on July 29th, 2014. For more information about the author, Amy Bloom, please visit her website. You can also follow her on Twitter at @AmyBloomBooks, and see other posts in this blog tour either by searching #LuckyUs on Twitter, or by going to the list I’ll be compiling at the bottom of this post.

Other reviews of Lucky Us from 20SB writers:

http://www.warmweatherwishes.com/2014/06/review-lucky-us-giveaway.html

http://theflannelflower.blogspot.com/2014/06/lucky-us-review-and-giveaway.html

http://www.poor-unknown.com/luckyus/  Warning: Outbound links from this post don’t appear to work

http://laurenofalltrades.blogspot.com/2014/06/lucky-us-review.html

http://emzrant.blogspot.com/2014/06/lucky-you-another-book-giveaway.html

http://www.thesls.blogspot.com/2014/06/lucky-us-book-review-giveaway.html

http://www.thechannelingboard.com/2014/06/giveaway-lucky-us-by-amy-bloom.html

http://thesaltypretzel.com/2014/06/20/lucky-us-amy-bloom/

Book Review – One Word Says It All by Amanda Osborn

Author’s Note: The following book review was previously published on my old blog on January 22nd, 2014. All content in this post is exactly the same as it was in the original post, except for prices, which have been updated as applicable.

I made an unofficial plan to read more this year than I did last year. To be fair, it wouldn’t be all that hard to read more than the 8 new books than I did last year, however I still set the goal for myself. Since I’m embarking on a journey of my own to become a published writer and write my own ebook, I figured what better place to start than to read a few books from writers I know personally (and by personally, I mean people I know from the internet via blogs/Twitter).

My first finished book of the year (I’m at two so far) was One Word Says It All: Stories From My Year Abroad in China by Amanda Osborn. Amanda is the author at Break the Sky, and occasionally shows up in the comments of various posts of this blog. Upon finishing Amanda’s book, I decided I’d do a book review for her book, along with the other books I finish this year written by people I know. There’s just one minor problem to this — I’ve never written a book review before. Much like the example video below, it’s just not part of my job description.

That said, I figured there’s no better place to try writing my first book review post than with One Word Says It All. The book discusses Amanda’s time in China as part of a study abroad program. I too took part in a study abroad program in college, spending the summer between my first and second years of university in Spain. Because of that, I was drawn to the subject matter of this book, even though China is a country I’ve never been to (or frankly dreamed of travelling to).

One Word Says It All is a very quick read. My Kindle app had it at 51 pages, and I finished reading the book in just over an hour. It’s written in a format very reminiscent of how I told stories about Spain to my own family when I returned from study abroad, though admittedly I didn’t have nearly as interesting of a time abroad as Amanda did.

If I had to pick a specific chapter that anyone interested in buying the book should read, I’d say that the chapter entitled “The Train Ride from Hell (Or, That Time a Baby Peed on Someone’s Pant Leg)”. Public transportation woes are rarely something that cause laughter, however when baby pee and an awkwardly exposed breast are involved, the story quickly becomes amusing in retrospect. The chapter’s content aside, the book’s tone does a fantastic job of illustrating Amanda’s emotions during her time abroad — both the highs and the lows — and truly makes the reader feel as though they’re being told the story by a close friend.

One Word Says It All: Stories From My Year Abroad in China is available for $2.99 on Kindle devices as well as the Kindle App on Android, iOS, and Windows 8. It’s a recommended read for all, though especially for those who have been through study abroad themselves, or those who will be taking the dive and studying abroad themselves in the future.

Book Review – The Shadow of the Bear by Kat Argo

As many of you who read this blog know, I’m in the process of editing a book I plan to release at some point in the future. The book is a collection of fictional short stories that delves into some of the darker emotions and experiences that twenty somethings have to deal with for the first time in their lives. My rationale for doing this is to shine a light on topics that often go undiscussed or dismissed by people who assume the world is nothing but a wonderful place to live in. Even though I’m working to become a more optimistic individual, solely seeing the world as a joyful place is an act of foolishness.

The stories in my book, however, are nothing more than what I initially described them as — works of fiction. I recently had the opportunity to read the new book “The Shadow of the Bear” by Kat Argo, which is a sobering and harrowing depiction of the ongoing Ukrainian Civil War. To say that the book is a must-read for anyone who has a desire to know what is truly happening in the world((Particularly those in the USA who hear little about non-US news)) would be an understatement.

Front

Admittedly, I went into the book expecting two things based off of my previous reading of Ms. Argo’s blog.

  1. A heavily non-fiction story based on the timeline of events around her experiences in Ukraine
  2. A fairly level mix of transparency on and shielding of the horrors of war.

I’ll get to why I expected the second item in a moment. As for the first, based off of everything that I was told about the book prior to getting my copy, I had no choice but to expect a completely non-fiction account that read like non-fiction. In my mind, there’s a distinct line between fiction writing and non-fiction writing. The former has flowery, descriptive language aimed at painting a picture in an effort to get the reader to connect to the characters, storylines, and themes therein. Meanwhile, the latter should read almost in a textbook-like style; it should be dry, difficult to digest, and largely unenjoyable unless you have a specific interest in the topic at hand.

“The Shadow of the Bear” doesn’t read like a high school textbook. Instead of delivering a non-fiction work in a non-fiction style, the book reads much more like a fiction piece than non-fiction. I’d have to imagine that if this book were to be made into an audiobook, it would be a very gripping listen, thanks in large part to the conversational storytelling style Ms. Argo uses.

Now as to that second point — the equal(ish) mix of transparency on war and shielding of the horrors it creates — I didn’t create the assumption because of a lack of faith in Ms. Argo’s writing ability. Quite the contrary is true, as anyone who has read her blog can attest to. That said, we live in a world where any form of violent action is either completely glossed over or is blown out of proportion. Neither of those is the correct reaction to have. War — actual combat where people are being injured, tortured, or dying in the name of nationalism, religion, profit, or some combination of the three — is a very specific, very grisly and dark concept. It’s a term thrown around carelessly when it’s not needed, yet the true atrocities actual war brings are rarely brought to light.

Here’s the thing. There’s an actual war going on in Ukraine. War is hell. War brings out the worst in people. Nothing conveys that better than a particular anecdote told late in the book regarding a prisoner of war march through the Ukrainian city of Donetsk. To set the scene without giving too much away, there are three primary parties involved in the Ukrainian civil war: the country of Ukraine, a group of separatist Ukrainians (typically of Russian descent), and Russia((Russia’s official stance is that they are not involved in this conflict however there is significant evidence to the contrary. Even if Russia isn’t a belligerent in name, they’re certainly still a significant influence to the actions taken by both sides of this conflict.)).The separatists had captured some Ukrainian fighters as prisoners, which lead to a scene where said prisoners of war were marched through the streets of separatist-held Donetsk.

For those unaware, humiliation of prisoners of war is a direct violation of the Geneva Conventions. While there’s certainly debate as to whether those captured were technically prisoners of war because the separatists did not have their own country, the actions taken were…well. Allow me to let words directly from “The Shadow of the Bear” do the talking.

“The prisoners looked atrophied, exhausted and
pale. Their hands were clasped behind their back,
heads bowed, eyes downcast. I couldn’t count the
number of black eyes I saw among them.

 

They marched at bayonet point, and the soldiers –
their captors – spent most of their time restraining the
angry crowd that threw rocks, eggs, bottles and spat
on the Ukrainian soldiers on display. They hurled
insults and several people attempted to run up and
attack the prisoners.”  — The Shadow of the Bear

May you and I only find such scenes as bleak settings of a book and nothing more.

I cannot recommend “The Shadow of the Bear” empathetically enough. The book has some very dark points, as a book about war should. But it humanizes conflict and violence, making it a very, very real thing to the reader. If you do read it but have concerns about the dark tales in the book, that’s perfectly fine. It’s a great read. If you’re planning to read “The Shadow of the Bear” because you have no fear or war and its atrocities, you’re exactly the person who needs to read this book.