Category Archives: Books

When My Name Was Keoko: World War II Korea

When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue ParkWhen My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park is set in occupied Korea during World War II. It follows a brother and sister as the Japanese inflict more and more hardships.

The story itself didn’t blow me away, but the history was a perspective I knew nothing about. I don’t know much about Korean history, so it was fascinating to get this glimpse.

Much of the World War II story we get is the brutality of the Nazis. I’ve heard some about Japanese soldiers, but this viewpoint is more from a civilian point of view as Korea has been occupied by Japan for more than 30 years. The story chronicles many of the ways the Japanese tried to eliminate Korean culture, including banning the language and writing, forced renaming of citizens and even uprooting and burning the national tree of Korea.

The Japanese were working to homogenize their empire, crush the spirit of any resistance and wipe out any unique identifiers that Koreans could take pride in.

With this backdrop it becomes painfully obvious how offensive it is when non-Asians treat all Asians with a broad brush, confusing Koreans for Japanese for Chinese and then dismissing it all as meaningless.

Subverting Expectations in The Butterfly Mosque

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow WilsonAn American woman moves to Cairo in 2003, converts to Islam and marries an Egyptian.

She’s not a terrorist (though the State Department was very interested in her activities).

She’s not an abused and mistreated Muslim wife.

She actually writes for The Atlantic Monthly and Marvel—yes, she writes comic books.

G. Willow Wilson has an incredibly interesting story (one of the many I discovered at the Festival of Faith and Writing) and The Butterfly Mosque is a glimpse into that story. She navigates a new religion and a new culture—effectively entirely new worlds—with poise and grace. She confronts stereotypes and subverts expectations.

But it’s not just a defense of Islam and an attack on America. There are certainly critiques, but Willow works to keep a foot in both worlds. She’s uncomfortable being a bridge between the two, but she takes on the role in the ways she can (such as Ms. Marvel).

It’s a great read. Perhaps my biggest takeaway is that things aren’t always what we expect and no single voice can speak for everyone, whether it’s religion or culture. The Islam we hear about from TV commentators is not the Islam that’s practiced by everyone. There are gradations. There are extremists everywhere.

It’s perhaps most telling when Willow describes tenets of Christianity that I didn’t recognize as my own faith. Ironically, she was pulling from different threads to articulate her rejection of Christianity. It’s the same thing Muslims struggle with when Westerners have a monolithic perspective of Islam that just doesn’t exist in reality.

Overall The Butterfly Mosque is a chance to embrace a diverse viewpoint and find some beauty and commonality despite our differences.

Experiments in Fiction: Fiction Unboxed

If you like to see the bleeding edge of fiction, check out the work of Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt and David Wright.

These guys host the Self-Publishing Podcast and write a lot of books. They follow a serial format—think of a TV series for books. They release individual episodes, collected into a season that makes up each series. And they’ve done a ton of different series.

Platt and Wright have the successful Yesterday’s Gone series, Truant wrote Fat Vampire and Platt and Truant wrote Unicorn Western.

Now I don’t think these guys are perfect. They’re on the bleeding edge, and I think it shows. Yesterday’s Gone is weird. The setup is so bizarre I didn’t get past the first season, but the suspense was pretty great. Fat Vampire is a hilarious concept and I liked the first one, but the sequels fell flat. Unicorn Western is another great concept, but I wasn’t hooked.

That’s just my opinion though. Yesterday’s Gone has nearly 700 reviews on Amazon averaging 4.5 stars. And these guys crank stuff out. Yesterday’s Gone has four seasons out and Unicorn Western has something like nine, and it only started in early 2013.

Now these guys are taking the experiment further and trying to write, edit and publish a novel in 30 days. It’s National Novel Writing Month on steroids. They’re also offering to share the process with the world, thanks to their Fiction Unboxed Kickstarter project.

They’ve got all kinds of rewards (including a free copy of the Scrivener writing software that I highly recommend), but the main idea is that you can see nuts and bolts of how they crank out stories so quickly.

It’s kind of a cool concept. Plus, the project has already met its goal, so it’s going to happen. If you want to support it, jump on board and reap the rewards.

I’m not in love with everything these guys crank out, but they’re out there and doing it. That’s impressive. And it’s worth watching.

The Last Wild: All Imagination, All Rise

The Last Wild by Piers TordayThe Last Wild by Piers Torday gives us a post-apocalyptic world where the red-eye virus has killed nearly all the animals. Save for a few holdouts, humanity has been pushed into cities and subsists on a synthetic formula.

It’s a bleak setup for a children’s novel. But it gets worse.

Kester Jaynes is trapped in a home for troubled children because he stopped talking six years ago. There’s your rejected outcast hero.

But then some of the remaining animals start talking to him, including a flock of pigeons and a fighting cockroach. They break him out and the adventure begins, a journey to cure the virus and save the last remaining animals.

It’s very British.

Kind of a post-apocalyptic Narnian adventure. I give it kudos for imagination (and a killer cover). The middle-grade post-apocalyptic story is quite a challenge.

But I felt like the pacing was off. Quest stories have a difficult task: the author needs to keep the adventure moving but maintain the right balance of hope and despair. We have to keep the goal in mind and feel like we’re getting there, but there also needs to be the drama of the adventure—all the challenges that keep our hero from his goal and jeopardize the entire mission.

There has to be a rising and falling action, moments of intense danger when it’s all on the line, but then moments of rest and recovery when our heroes can gather their wits and prepare for the next challenge. I felt like The Last Wild never had any rest. It was all rise. That might work in a mix CD, but not in an adventure story.

Plus, it’s the first in a series, so we don’t get complete closure on everything.

New/Old Asian Superhero: The Shadow Hero

The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen YangThis is fun: Gene Luen Yang is releasing a new retelling of a classic Asian superhero, the Green Turtle.

It’s an exploration of the immigrant experience through the superhero genre, which is essentially all about immigrants and living in two cultures at once. As Gene says:

Superheroes are also about immigrants.  Take at look at Superman, the granddaddy of them all.  His parents sent him to America in search of a better life.  He had two names, one American (Clark Kent) and the other foreign (Kal-El).  He wears two sets of clothes and lives in between two cultures.  He loves his new home, but a part of him longs for his old one.

The character originated in the 1940s and had a short run, but Gene is reviving this forgotten superhero with a new story.

It’s being released as a complete graphic novel this summer, The Shadow Hero, or you can grab digital releases as they come out (#4 of 6 comes out this week).

I discovered Gene Luen Yang earlier this spring thanks to the Festival of Faith and Writing. If his past work is any indication (especially Boxers & Saints and American Born Chinese), this one is going to be worth checking out.

How to Steal a Dog Shows the Reality of Homelessness

How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O'ConnorHow to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor is a quick and powerful story that realistically portrays the reality of homelessness.

Georgina finds herself homeless when her father runs out, their family gets evicted and Georgina, her mom and her brother end up living in their car. But she sees a lost dog poster on a telephone pole and gets an idea—she’ll steal a dog and then claim the reward. An extreme situation prompts extreme action and Georgina makes some hard choices.

It’s not a happy-go-lucky story like the cover might make you think. The kid is homeless. She’s living in her car. She’s contemplating stealing someone’s dog and holding it hostage.

In short: It’s depressing.

Now the book isn’t a total downer (it is for children). It ends on a positive note. But it is rough, because being homeless is rough. Georgina faces it all, from struggling in school to losing friends to being ashamed of her dirty clothes and appearance. How to Steal a Dog shows how quickly things can fall apart and how homelessness is a reality for “regular” people.

Criss Cross is the Intersection of Lives and Nothing More

Criss Cross by Lynee Rae PerkinsThe book jacket description of Criss Cross by Lynn Rae Perkins doesn’t really tell you anything. There’s a reason for that. This book isn’t about anything.

“She wished something would happen,” it says right on the cover, and that’s about right.

The story follows several teenage characters with intersecting lives and it just hums along through ordinary days. You get slice of life stuff. Hector wants to learn how to play guitar. Debbie and her friend Patty change clothes after leaving the house but before getting to school. Lenny teaches Debbie how to drive stick. Debbie helps an elderly neighbor. Hector wants to ask a girl in his guitar class out, but she’s only got eyes for the football player.

It’s well-written and engaging, so I stuck with it, but there’s really no rising or falling plot. That can be interesting for what it is, but I like to have good writing actually go somewhere.

Jacob Wonderbar and the Random Capers Kids Love

Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow by Nathan BransfordJacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow by Nathan Bransford is a boy-friendly space adventure story with plenty of wacky capers. Jacob is a troublemaker at school and he teams up with his best friends Dexter and Sarah for some non-stop fun, initiated when a man in a silver suit trades a spaceship for a corn dog.

Yep, that’s the kind of randomness you can expect from Jacob Wonderbar.

I thought it felt a little too directionless, but I read it aloud to Milo and he loved it. It’s turned into a series and I’m sure I’ll be reading the others to Milo.

Tonight at dinner for some reason he was talking about having children and Abby asked him what he would name his kids.

His answer? Jacob, Dexter and Sarah.

Sarah’s Key Explores the Vel’ d’Hiv Holocaust

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de RosnaySarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay explores the Vel’ d’Hiv’ tragedy during World War II when French Jews were rounded up and ultimately sent to the death camps. It was by order of the German occupation, but carried out by French authorities.

The story is told from the perspective of a young girl rounded up with her family and also a middle age woman in 2003 researching the story as a journalist when she uncovers a personal family connection.

It’s a compelling story and engaging as the mystery unfolds, but I wasn’t completely engaged or rooting for the characters. Part of it is the intense nature of the Holocaust, but something about the disconnected French characters and the way the girl’s story eventually fell out of the narrative left me wanting something more.

But it is an educational moment, exploring the French complicity (and later guilt) and an element of the Holocaust I’d never heard about before.

Hattie Big Sky: Anti-German Fury on a Montana Homestead

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby LarsonThe cover of Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson looks like something my mom would read, but it’s Little House on the Prairie with a plot and girl power. 16-year-old Hattie is an orphan who inherits her uncle’s homestead in 1917 Montana and works to prove the claim on her own. The timeframe puts the story in the middle of World War I and anti-German sentiment is brewing on the prairie.

It’s a simple story that weaves together several complex threads to make a satisfying whole that focuses on faith, country and the power of what you can do when you have the strength of friendship.

The anti-German fury is disappointing, but the historical reality is that we have a long track record of demonizing our enemy by persecuting our neighbors. It’s maddening and you’d think a country of immigrants would learn. But we don’t.

The homestead details are very reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder, except of course it takes place nearly 50 years later, which gives an interesting insight into the Montana homestead experience. It also features a strong and young woman striking out on her own, which was based on a true story.

It’s a solid story that gives a full impression of a place and time, not leaving out the cold, hard realities.