Category Archives: Books

A Wizard of Earthsea: Meh

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le GuinA Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin is a beloved fantasy classic that subverts expectations. I wasn’t impressed.

It’s the coming of age story of a wizard, but unlike Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, there are no wars and the main enemy is primarily internal. It was an intentional choice by Le Guin to create something different and portray a world that wasn’t defined by endless war and violence.

It also has the distinction of being a fantasy novel published in 1968 where nearly all the characters are people of color. The only white characters are villains and savages, a telling reversal. Unfortunately the publisher refused to reflect that in the cover art.

While all that is fascinating, I didn’t think the story was. I’m not a big fan of fantasy, which is one big strike, and then the story felt distant and slow. Part of it was her style, which felt older than the 1960s—more like ancient legend. Then there’s the fantasy trope—”I traveled to the [bizarre description] isle of [weird name], and found the [more bizarre description] people, know as [another weird name]. But I think the biggest factor was the slow plodding pace of the story and feeling like we weren’t going anywhere.

This is probably sacrilege to all the Earthsea fans, but there it is. The book has more than 100,000 ratings on Goodreads, and still has a very positive 3.96 rating (out of 5), so clearly lots of folks would disagree with me.

Half Way Home: Colonies, Lord of the Flies & AI

Half Way Home by Hugh HoweyHalf Way Home by Hugh Howey offers one of those classic and incredible sci-fi setups: Planetary colonies are sent out across the universe and governed by an artificial intelligence that decides the viability of the colony and aborts when not fully viable. You get a sense for the creepy undertones already.

The story follows one colony that is aborted, but the abort sequence is stopped. Maybe 15% survive, having been interrupted in their gestation and only half grown and educated (meaning they’re teenagers instead of adults). As the surviving confused colonists stumble out of the vats, they’re in for a strange new world where their AI tried to abort them but then changed its mind, and rather than give answers insists they work to build a rocket ship that has nothing to do with survival.

So it’s part colonization story, part Lord of the Flies, with a little bit of creepy Dave from 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown in.

The fact that Hugh Howey wrote Half Way Home for National Novel Writing Month means it’s quick and has a special place in my heart.


One of the deeper themes in the story (SPOILER ALERT) is the main character’s orientation. He’s gay and slowly comes to terms with this throughout the story. What he’s really coming to terms with is the fact that he’s alone—and we learn that’s quite intentional (thank you creepy AI). It’s not an overriding part of the story, but it is an interesting commentary on the “otherness” that society creates for LGBT people.

Not Quite YA

The only downside to Half Way Home is that it’s supposed to be a YA novel, but I think that fails.  I read a lot of YA (probably half the books I’ve read this year are YA or middle grade) and even knowing what to expect I couldn’t read it that way. The characters came across like adults and not teenagers. And it’s not that Howey can’t write teenagers. He did a great job with the YA feel in the Molly Fyde series.

But Half Way Home‘s non-YA-ness didn’t lessen my enjoyment at all. I’ve been lacking in some intergalactic sci-fi lately, and while colonizing a planet isn’t gallivanting across the stars, it’s still pretty great.

Everything You Need to Survive the Apocalypse Isn’t About the Apocalypse

No, Everything You Need to Survive the Apocalypse by Lucas Klauss is not an apocalypse story. The dorky teen character Phillip is interested in the apocalypse, but that’s about it. Really it’s about Phillip getting involved with a girl who’s committed to her church and Phillip falling for both the girl and God. The exploration of Christian youth culture is eerily accurate, though ultimately it feels like it shortchanges the faith element.

There’s this open question of whether Phillip is really converting to Christianity as he gets closer to Rebekkah, or if he’s just interested in a girl. We get the whole church youth group experience, complete with awkward altar calls and outsider weirdness. The book nails it. I kept checking to see if it was from a Christian publisher.

We get the interesting dilemma of Phillip’s faith versus love and it’s treated well until the end. There’s a real exploration of faith happening, but it isn’t going very deep. It seems sincere, but then as Phillip loses the girl he loses the faith as well. It’s disappointing because it’s such a waste. Was any of it sincere?

I appreciated the effort and the otherwise honest way church was portrayed, but it all felt like a wasted effort at the end.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-MillsBeautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills is an eye-opening look into the life of a trans-gendered person.

As a senior in high school, Liz decides she’s now Gabe. She’s never felt like a she, but getting everyone to accept her as a he is no easy task. Simple things like which bathroom to use and filling out W2 forms are stress-inducing for her—er,  him.

My own confusion over which personal pronouns to use are a good example of how we really get a feel for what Gabe’s struggle is like. The story is in his voice so the struggle is personal and real. It’s not some out there issue we can easily dismiss.

Tackling that topic alone makes it a book worth reading, but no one wants to read a story about a token hot button character. Instead Gabe has this fabulous interest in music and wants to be a DJ. His neighbor is this washed up, old school disc jockey who shows him the ropes. Gabe starts his own community radio show and begins to flourish as he finds himself and generates a following.

It all comes together as a very real and lovely story about humanity.

In light of a recent Southern Baptist Convention resolution about transgendered people, I think a book like this is more necessary than ever. The resolution basically dismisses the struggles of transgendered people, saying God made them one way and they shouldn’t try to change it. Jesus will help them.

I don’t pretend to understand all the theological perspectives here, but where’s the compassion? The resolution did condemn any bullying, abuse or violence against transgendered people, but that feels like lipstick on a pig.

We’re broken people living in a broken world. There are a lot of things that aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. I’m not sure denial is very compassionate.

I see more of Jesus in Gabe and the friends who love him than I do in this church resolution. This is why I read. I don’t know anyone like Gabe personally. But now I have a tiny glimpse of what that life might be like, and I think it makes me a tiny bit more understanding, sympathetic and compassionate.

That feels more like Jesus to me.

Kid vs. Squid Needs More Squid

Kid vs. Squid by Greg van EekhoutKid vs. Squid by Greg van Eekhout is a wacky summer adventure with lots of ocean-themed mayhem. It’s fast-paced and has moments of good humor, but it was also a little hard to follow.

But perhaps the most unforgivable sin of false advertising: The title is Kid vs. Squid and there’s no squid until page 169.

And the kid vs. squid fight barely lasts a chapter.

And it’s not really the kid who fights the squid, but seagulls who do most of the fighting.

Sorry, but Kid vs. Squid sold me on this book. I saw that title and didn’t need to know anything more.

But you have to follow through on that glorious promise. Otherwise it doesn’t matter how good the rest of the book is, you’ve let me down as a reader.

I read this one aloud to my kids and they enjoyed it, though were also disappointed at the lack of squid.

Not a Drop to Drink

Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnisI haven’t read a good straight up post-apocalyptic story in a while, and Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis fit the bill.

Focused on water scarcity (something I haven’t seen a lot of in the genre, but will surely become more common), we get a strong teen character in Lynn who knows the dangers of the outside world but has to learn to recognize the potential joys.

How well does she know the dangers? Her mother raised her to shoot strangers on sight—no warnings, no questions asked.

The story is quick, sparse and avoids the temptation to draw things out or go for the cliche. Especially at the end [SPOILER ALERT] there were a number of overdone scenarios I thought I saw coming, but McGinnis steered away from what you’d expect. It could have turned into a series with the main bad guy getting away (though there is a companion novel, set 10 years later, coming out in the fall). The big battle at the end could have had the emotional pain of losing Stebbs, but instead McGinnis went for the bigger hurt. We even could have seen revenge on the coyote that killed Lynn’s mother. So big points for keeping things original.

In the realm of post-apocalyptic stories I think it falls short of some of the genre favorites. Things are a little too easy and clean cut. It also felt like there were some missed opportunities with a pretty great setup and characters. Rather than following the wanderers like most post-apocalyptic stories, we stay with the home base. Lynn is the danger the wanderers face. While much of the story is her learning to interact with others, it happens pretty quickly and I think there was an opportunity to play with that in interesting ways.

It’s still a great story, but it could have been more. Which is high praise, especially for a debut book.


Randi Rhodes Ninja Detective: Characters Trump the Mystery

Rhandi Rhodes Ninja Detective by Octavia SpencerRandi Rhodes Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit by Octavia Spencer is a quick mystery featuring a kid detective and her friends. I’m not a big mystery fan, so I need to be really impressed. Not so much with this one.

The characters were good. I liked Randi Rhodes and her friends. They’re realistic and relatable, dealing with real problems. The biggest is Randi overcoming the death of her mother.

But the mystery didn’t stand up to the quality characters. It felt a little too simplistic (though it is a kids’ chapter book) and relied on a big reveal at the end. The Time-Capsule Bandit really didn’t hold my interest, but Randi and her friends did.

I’d be willing to read another volume in this series just for the characters, though I hope the mysteries pick up.

The Living: What’s the Plural of Apocalypse?

The LIving by Matt De La PenaConspiracy and cover up in the midst of apocalyptic mayhem on a cruise ship—with a scary disease thrown in for good measure.

The hits just keep coming in The Living by Matt de la Peña.

The story centers on Shy, a hard-working kid stuck in the middle of it all. In many ways this book can’t quite decide what it is, and you get some of everything from class-based cruise ship hijinks to suicide mystery to Titanic sinking to adrift in a life boat.

It’s also the first in a series, so there’s not a lot of closure (though it’s better than most). The cruise ship apocalypse is taken care of in volume one, but there’s still the super disease conspiracy and a giant earthquake, which leaves plenty of mayhem for later in the series. It’ll be interesting to see if this turns into a post-apocalyptic tale or if it’s more firmly grounded in the midst of the apocalypse.

What’s the plural of apocalypse?

The relentless pace was fun, but it felt awfully jumbled.

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn JohnsonIn a futuristic, post-apocalypse city state the political system is ruled by women and a summer king is elected every five years—only to be killed when the winter ends. Yes, The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson has a complicated, dystopian setup. In a nutshell, men couldn’t be trusted after ruining the world, so women held most of the power.

But this year’s summer king is pushing the rules and he inspires teenage artist June as she struggles to figure out her place. Like everyone else, she’s intrigued by the new summer king and begins to push the boundaries of her art, the technology the ruling class allows and the very rules of society.

This one is bizarre and intriguing. Set in what used to be Brazil, we’re constantly catching up with the future world and the South American setting. Not everything is explained immediately, which is OK. It also moves along at a good pace, frequently skipping ahead weeks or months and not getting derailed in daily detail.

But it also gets into strange technology and bizarre cultural situations where it’s hard to keep up with what’s happening. That kills any page-turner tendency the story was developing.

It’s been considered among the best—at least by Rolling Stone— but I’m not so convinced. It’s definitely different and breaks some new ground (a future not dominated by white Americans—gasp!), but it’s not the must-read I yearn for.

Sideways Stories Wasn’t as Magical as I Remember

Sideways Stories From Wayside School by Louis SacharSideways Stories From Wayside School by Louis Sachar was one of my favorite books growing up.

I read it to the kids and it wasn’t as magical and hilarious as I remember. It’s still fun and definitely quirky, but it’s also disjointed and sometimes just weird (dead rats?).

It makes me wonder how much of my enjoyment came because one of my teachers read it to us and those books always seem to be better?

It was also written 35 years ago and what was considered off-beat and quirky back then is pretty tame today. We have a lot weirder and more off-beat now, so it seems like a halfway approach.

It could also be that I’m no longer 8 and don’t laugh at the same stuff.