The Reading Slump: A Blog Post of Complaint

A reading slump is a pretty annoying occurrence for an avid reader. Sometimes, though, life just throws you moods and novels that don’t agree. Some of you may have never experienced this, but unfortunately for me, it comes around a couple of times a year as of late.

When I’m in a reading mood, I really read. I chew through books at a startling pace, often reading one to two 300 or more word books in a week. As such, I go through material quickly and I’ve started perusing my library’s ebook selection, so as to not spend all the mortgage on books.

Ever since the end of summer, I’ve been having trouble finding books that are really all that interesting to me. If you’ve taken a gander at this blog before, you’ll know that my pet genres are science fiction and fantasy. Specifically, I like dystopian and speculative fiction.

But everything seems alike. Even the novels that are pushing five stars on Amazon and much-applauded by friends and other reviews leave me feeling like they were only mediocre. I’ve started and not finished a few books recently, which is pretty out of the ordinary for me.

The last book I really enjoyed reading was my re-read of To Kill A Mockingbird, this summer. Since then, I tried to find a new author or book to enjoy. I got The Way of Kings for free, which is a 4.7 out of 5 stars on Amazon. I read about 30 percent of it before I gave up to focus on my October reading, because it just wasn’t pulling me into the story. It was interesting enough, but I had no qualms moving away from it. I read my October picks (a yearly read of classic horror) and then moved on to a book called Tower Lord. I had read the first in that series two years ago (Bloodsong), which is a fantastic book. Tower Lord fell horribly short within the first 20 percent, and I quickly ditched reading that. Now I’m working through Storm Siren, though I feel that it’s fairly generic and I would gladly abandon it for something else.

What I really want is a series or book I can get excited about. I’m not really drawn to much literary or contemporary fiction, but I feel like maybe I’ve just burnt myself out on the whole sword and sorcery genre (though I still find the story my boyfriend is writing to be very interesting, and it falls under that heading, so perhaps not). I had tried a few different approaches, but I don’t want to read anything too sad or emotionally trying, because my grandma passed in the end of October and I’m still a little emotionally raw from that, especially with the holidays.

It’s so weird to say that I can look through books and not find something that interests me. Even some of my go-to re-reads haven’t been intriguing me (The Book of Lost Things). I don’t know if it’s my mood, the books, or life itself, but this slump is pretty annoying.

I’m thinking that I’ll step outside what I normally read and try something different to see if that will re-trigger my interest in books. Perhaps a non-fiction or literary fiction work. I may even try to go with a classic I haven’t read in years that has little of the fantastical in it, or force myself to read something that is emotionally trying, even though I shy away from it.

I need something to help me get back the feeling of excitement that I had for new books. Any suggestions?

Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Cover image courtesy

I’d like to begin this post by pointing out an important distinction. Frankenstein is the last name of the person who created the monster of the novel. For some reason, popular culture often refers to the re-animated being as Frankenstein.

My first thought upon reading this work was that the story of Frankenstein and his monster has been changed a ton for the Hollywood and pop culture versions. As with anything that is widely available through media we hear and see all our lives, it can sometimes be hard to separate the original work (a problem I discussed in my Jurassic Park review).

The novel follows an explorer who is writing letters to his sister. One day he sees a large figure driving a sledge and then not long later he finds a man named Frankenstein near death on the ice. They rescue this man and he begins to tell his story, which details the creation of the monster and the events thereafter.

Frankenstein is pretty full of himself. He is dramatic and likes to picture himself as some grand gentleman and scholar. When grief knocks on his door, he keens and flails. Quite frankly, he is in dire need of a fainting couch. I was fairly put off by this aspect of his character. Perhaps the oddest part of his behavior involved the creation of the monster. After two years of ignoring everything but his feverish work on the monster, he gives it the spark of life and is immediately freaked out. He then runs to his bedroom, spurns the monster when it shows up in his bedroom after being alive for about five minutes, and then ignores that it ever happened for the next two years.

The monster himself is largely ignored and ends up watching a family for some time. In this way, he learns to speak and read. It seems that he looks so gruesome that everyone that sees him is incapable of seeing past it, which I had a somewhat hard time understanding. I might say that the time period contributed to that, though. Over time as the monster learns that he is feared for his looks and that Frankenstein, his creator, wants nothing to do with him, he turns to vengeance and starts murdering the people Frankenstein holds dear.

The question often discussed in regards to Shelley’s work is this: who is the real monster? Frankenstein is a study in humanity and what makes us good or bad. Frankenstein pursues knowledge without real ethical thought, then spurns his creation. He later becomes obsessed with protecting his family from that creation and never truly faces up to what he is done. He then spends his life blaming the monster for his troubles and whining. Not the greatest person.

The monster begins life as a blank slate and lives in the woods. He develops a moral and ethical code based on the family he observes, who is Christian. As such, when he feels the world has turned its back on him, he knowingly violates those Christian morals. He is obsessed with approval from his creator, but attempts coercion and murder to sway him.  I’d say this defines the monster as not a good person, either.

I think the main point for me was that any person may become a monster. Sentience defines ethics. The question should truly be: are we born with an intrinsic sense of right and wrong, or is that merely a social construction? Are we brought into the world with basic moral laws intact, such as not killing fellow humans, or are these merely developments of where we live? Is the monster outside the realm of humanity?

The book had an odd style and was a little difficult to read in some aspects, as is common with older works. It was interesting in the sense of the questions is asks about humanity, as well as giving me the chance to read the real story of what happened, unobscured by Hollywood. Overall, I would say READ WITH CAUTION. Frankenstein is pretty annoying to read about, especially since the adventurer he tells his story to fawns over him. The writing might be tough for some readers.
What do you think defines a monster? Neither monster nor Frankenstein are really good examples of people, from my perspective.

Mediocrity Roundup: Three Unimpressive Reads

Though my posts have dropped off a bit recently, I’ve continued to read. Unfortunately, many of my choices have been rather lackluster, neither inspiring joy nor hatred. These books didn’t really stand out to me in any way, and merely helped to pass the time rather than enrich me. As such, I figured I’d give them a few sentences in order to potentially help you in selecting (or not selecting) them in the future.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

I got this book a year or so ago from a Humble Bundle. Basically, a teen is thrown into a near-future dystopian world and endeavors to help spread freedom throughout the increasingly paranoid country. There was too much lingo that would date the work (a common theme for Doctorow, per a friend), which I find frustrating, and it was a bit tech heavy for me. It had somewhat of a Ready Player One vibe, in the sense of technology, game-like settings, and teenaged heroes. I got tired of the characters fast, and frequently didn’t care about the main character enough to keep reading. Perhaps it was too much teen angst and confusion. As such, it was a DID NOT FINISH (at around 60%).

The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

I got this book as part of the Kindle First program. A newly graduated magician is signed up to become a paper magician, supposedly the most boring of all the magics, and things ensue that prove that view wrong. The book has an astonishing amount of detail, probably because the main character is obsessively detail oriented. This was not something I enjoyed. It was fairly boring, as the reader is just waiting for the character to blossom. Suddenly, it got quite interesting with a single event, but then fell back into the tedium of a journey, unexpected (yet expected) findings, and a very cheesy love affair. It could have been a very cool book, but the story and writing were droll. I don’t really understand how the world viewed paper magic as boring anyway, which is a main concept of the book. You can create temporary organs and breathe life into inanimate paper objects. How exactly is that boring? I’d call this book a READ WITH CAUTION.

Emancipation: A Civil War Vampire Novel: Book One of the Thirsty Ones by Pauline Ray

I picked up this book for free because I saw it in a Facebook ad (the title itself should have warned me away). The Civil War is just over and the south won, thanks to the aid of vampires. Overall, it was a pretty creepy and disturbing novel. The main character is, in my opinion, crazy, and continually makes horrible decisions. All the characters are exceedingly single minded. The main character claims to be super religious and hear the voice of God, yet engages in an act that completely goes against her religious beliefs at the start of the novel and never seems to realize it. It is an interesting twist on history and it doesn’t skimp on the realities of slavery, but it is overwhelmingly brought down by a unlikeable main character. Think of an insane, hyper-religious Scarlett O’Hara and a blond, jaded, blood-drinking Rhett Butler. Some people might find the book interesting or say that the character was written well, but I just couldn’t get past the irritation I felt for them. As such, I call this book a DON’T READ.

Overall, it’s safe to say I won’t be recommending these works to people. I do, however, realize that sometimes you’re just in a reading slump, and even good books might seem bad. I sincerely hope that contributed to my thoughts about these works. Have you read anything spectacularly lackluster lately?

Read On: Banned Books Week 2014

It’s Banned Books Week, once again. This week-long, annual event has a goal of celebrating the freedom to read. According to the American Library Association, more than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982. Here are the top five challenged titles from 2013:

  1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey. Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence
  2. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
  3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Drugs/alcohol, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James. Nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group

The point here is not to necessarily defend the merits of these works but to argue that the freedom to read what we wish is of the utmost importance. Sure, Fifty Shades of Gray may seem to be something positive that was challenged and banned. Who wants their child reading about sex and fetishes? I’d personally question that notion with the fact that most people have no issue with their children reading Shakespeare.

I love the Bard and his wordplay, much of which involved strategic bawdy humor to entice the common man and rich folk alike (swords and sheaths). Take Romeo & Juliet, a classic love story. Well, Juliet is 13 and about to ignite from sexual tension. Romeo is completely in love with his cousin, then decides he likes Juliet better after seeing her once. They conspire to get married after meeting (once), then have sex. In a three day period, they meet, get married, and die. There is murder, running away, poison, pretending to be dead, disobeying parents, sex, suicide, and a variety of death in that play. A little spanking doesn’t seem nearly as wild.

Why are books banned or challenged?

Most of the time, books, comics, or graphic novels are challenged because adults deem their content unsuitable for the minds of our youth. Whether there is a religious disagreement (a notable example being Rowling’s Harry Potter series) or an issue with sex and language (Fifty Shades of Gray), the challenges come from a spirit of controlling what our kids consume. This is understandable, in some senses; however, this is the responsibility of the individual parent and not one of an entire community.

Classics are frequently challenged alongside more modern works, including 1984, The Great Gatsby, and To Kill A Mockingbird. A wide variety of books that most of us would never consider harmful have been challenged as well, including Winnie the Pooh and various works by Dr. Seuss (Hop On Pop for encouraging violence towards a parent, The Lorax for vilifying the lumber industry). As you can see, some challenges make more sense than others.

What can you do?

I think responsibility is key, here. As a kid, I always sought out the banned books in order to find out what they were all about. This is how I initially read one of my favorite books, 1984, while I was in middle school. As a parent, if you’re concerned about what your kids read, my advice is to read with them or talk about the issues. What better way to explore certain aspects of society and issues that your kids deal with?

Like it or not, your kids deal with these issues: sex, drugs, alcohol, suicide, mental illness, betrayal, bullying, friendships, identity, relationships, trust, and survival. All these problems are the subjects of books and young adult material, most of which can prove to be a helpful guide. If you’re concerned about your kid not interpreting these messages in a positive way, read the book with them. Discuss, don’t preach.

Studies show that kids who read the Harry Potter series end up being more empathetic and tolerant. Millennials are reading more than ever. Young adult works have had a resurgence of popularity, and frequently deal in the currency of strong characters that can be great role models. There are a lot of potential lessons to be learned.

Check out a book that has been challenged. Keep an open mind. Talk. Discuss. Listen. Remember that life is something we only get a stab at once, unless we read.
What are your favorite banned books? Do you agree with challenges on works of literature? Comment below or send a tweet to @hewts to let me know what you think.

Review: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Image courtesy Wikipedia.

It is infinitely hard for me to give this book an unbiased review, but I will endeavor to do so. Though the cause and effect aren’t very clear, it seems that I have always loved dinosaurs and Jurassic Park. I do not intend to compare the book and movie. With this knowledge and the image of me creating a purple velociraptor in a coloring book (which was, in some ways, more scientifically accurate than the movie, somehow), I begin this review.

Through the miracle of biotechnology and a little frog DNA, dinosaurs have been resurrected and populate a soon-to-be theme park off the coast of Costa Rica. To test his dream and please his investors, John Hammond brings in a team including a paleontologist, paleobotanist, chaos mathematician, investor, and his grandchildren. As the chaos mathematician predicts, things go horribly awry. The dinosaurs adapt to their new surroundings, escape their enclosures, and defy the biological measures meant to keep them dependent on humans and the island. As such, the humans fall a few notches down the food chain and must work to not only escape with their lives, but destroy the dinosaurs that could easily threaten the world.

As with most Crichton books I have read, the science is pretty sound (ignore the marketing decision to name the park Jurassic Park when the dinos come from a variety of periods). You can tell he did a lot of research, and there is an interesting sprinkling of knowledge throughout. There was perhaps a bit too much chaos theory for me, though.

The chaos mathematician, Ian Malcolm, had the propensity to drone on a bit much to the park’s creator, Hammond. To me, this was in part because of the book’s theme of nature, balance, and the emphasis that humanity doesn’t have as much control as we’d like to think. It’s very interesting to see where the research of that time period was at, whereas nowadays we more often depict many of the dinosaurs present in Jurassic Park with feathers. The thought that dinos could have evolved into birds was just gaining a resurgence, then.

The characters were compelling and actually thought about situations, though Lex was fairly annoying (she was eight, however, so I forgive her). You have to both love and hate Hammond, because he wanted so badly to bring the dinosaurs to life for the wonder of it all, but at the same time he’s happy charging thousands of dollars a day to make a boatload of cash off the park.

The dinosaurs are sometimes characterized as malevolent, which was a little off to me. I think it is human nature to perceive predators that are a danger to us as potentially malevolent, specifically those with a lot of intelligence, like the raptors. Nature, sometimes, is what we’d call “evil,” but we have to remember that morals are a human invention and we really can’t apply them to the rest of existence (killer whales wound baby seals and play with them, often never even eating the carcass).

Jurassic Park has an interesting and somewhat obvious lesson about science, humanity, and power. Science has become an increasingly commercialized endeavor; Wu becomes a paid scientist for Hammond rather than going to a university in order to skip red tape and make his mark on the world a lot earlier. As such, he hurriedly creates dinosaurs. Though a grand achievement, it also has a ton of flaws. Money, power, and ability often outweigh common sense.

Overall, I would call this book a READ. If you like dinosaurs, action, science, and complex moral issues, then this is probably a good choice for you. It isn’t exceedingly deep, however, and I don’t feel that the overall lesson of the book was super challenging (much like Dune; don’t rape the planet, don’t abuse the animals and system). It is a lovely world for me to step in, though, and I’m glad to have read it again. I understand a great deal more of it now that I’m not in sixth grade.

Keep an eye out for my next review of this book’s sequel: Jurassic Park: The Lost World.

Should you save the story or shoot it in the head?

Image courtesy

What happens when a story idea you’ve got pretty well formed in your head doesn’t really cut it anymore?

For about three years now, I’ve toyed with a story I’ve named Eleven Years After. The basic idea is that a traveling caravan of traders in a post-apocalyptic world expands to find new territory and discovers a city with near-pre-apocalyptic technology levels. They have running water, electricity, complex institutions of government, and a few more sinister aspects of society. Another aspect of my story is that it involves what you might generally call zombies, the catalyst for this apocalypse.

For a long time, I thought zombies were the creepiest monster out there. As a kid, the idea of something eating my brains was quite terrifying. I specifically remember realizing I feared zombies the most during a show called “Big Wolf on Campus,” an ABC Family afternoon TV show about a werewolf just trying to make it through highschool.

When I started dating Ben around seven years ago, he was into zombie movies. I watched them and did some thinking and realized that zombies are pretty darn interesting because of how they reflect human society. I stopped being terrified of zombies and became more intrigued by what they made people do. Soon after, I read World War Z (which, unlike the movie, is a brilliant look at humanity in the grips of an apocalypse caused by zombies; go read it now; really, stop reading this post and go read it; I’m not kidding).

My boyfriend began to explore writing and eventually published a short story called Mercury, Sulfur & Salt. I was inspired by him and started thinking about my own story ideas. In this time, zombies rose (har, har) in popularity, becoming a pretty fashionable marketing tool for books, movies, and more. I read a lot of zombie fiction and discovered that a lot of it was just about violence and less about the human factor. There are some pretty decent works out there, but many are poorly done, in my opinion. I finally saw the World War Z movie, and while it was a good zombie movie, it follows the Oatmeal’s explanation precisely in that it and the book only share a title in common.

Frankly, I’m pretty tired of zombies by now. Like vampires, they’ve recently been overplayed and overdone. I specifically avoid books with zombie themes in them myself, because they’re almost always rewritten versions of the same story. It seems tired. As someone that enjoyed zombies before they heightened in popularity, seeing them come to the forefront and be made into a boring genre was pretty disheartening.

Where does this leave my story? Ben gave me the good advice to write the book I want to read. At this point in time, I don’t want to read about zombies. Though I think my story has a good plot and could be interesting to read, I feel like I would dismiss it because of the zombie connection. If I’m feeling that way, a lover of b-grade monster movies and one who enjoys seeing the social implications of monsters in books and films, then how would Jane Q. Reader feel?

A major inspirational part of this story’s birth was a short piece of fiction I wrote on another blog of mine, years ago, that centered on a zombie bite. Should I scrap my story and start over? Should I try to work the themes of my story (post apocalyptic, dystopian, speculative fiction) into  scenario that doesn’t involve zombie-like creatures? Should I stick it out and hope for the best?

On the same token, aren’t these monsters pervasive and always there? Haven’t there been zombie, vampire, and werewolf movies every few years or so for my entire life? “Night of the Living Dead” was done in 1968. “28 Days Later” was done in 2002. “Dawn of the Dead” was done in 1978 and 2004. Should I really be worried?

A conundrum, at best.

Review: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Image courtesy Amazon.

Humanity may have left Earth and branched out through our solar system, but what makes us human is still there—especially the bad parts. Leviathan Wakes is an entertaining space opera set in a future where technology has allowed humans to colonize the solar system, including Mars and the asteroid belt. It sports of a cast of “usual suspects,” but each is vivid enough to remain captivating.

Space opera is basically dramatic space adventure. The most notable example for many people is Star Wars. The term originated as a means of referring to a soap opera-type show or story set in space, with science fiction elements. As I enjoy the notion of a space opera, I was drawn to this book by a Kindle Daily Deal and the cover review that said “…kickass space opera.” I’m a fan of kickass space operas, so why not?

The story follows the lives of two men, one from Earth working on a ship that hauls ice to the outlying colonies, and one who is a detective on an asteroid settlement. Each has a unique voice, history, and motivation, and the chapters switch back and forth between them. As the book progresses, the lives of the two become intertwined when catastrophe threatens. A series of unexplained ship explosions and a too-honest broadcast lurch the system into war, while a small group of space miners and the detective work to stop the real threat—a biological weapon that aliens aimed at our planet long ago. (Alternate title: “Humans in spaceships going places fast with entertaining goals.”)

The dual point of view is done well and didn’t feel cumbersome. It was a nice taste of different views throughout the story. The setup of the book was a little boring, as we follow a series of events that lead to the part that gets really interesting (around about 15 percent). The overall tale was good, yet I felt the ending to be just a touch too far out of the realm of the story.

Both main characters were charmingly frustrating. Each had his own quirks that made you not like him, but then you’d read something else through his eyes and forgive the previous transgressions. Some of the speech patterns in the book were very difficult to read. The Belter dialect was pretty darn hard to understand, but it was meant to be that way.

I enjoyed the fact that this book didn’t leave our galaxy. It gave it a sense of near future that many sci-fi books lack. The technology felt plausible to me, specifically the notion that fast space travel isn’t comfy, cozy, or really desirable. The Big Bad of the story was dealt with logically, which is refreshing. Instead of yammering about random actions and ignoring facts, the appropriate questions and actions were asked.

My favorite aspect of this story was the human element. We are, essentially, a race that hates difference and change. Sci-fi tends to take a couple of views on this. In Star Trek, humanity has long since learned to work together and pull strength from our differences. The galaxy in Leviathan Wakes is not that sort of humanity. The Earthers don’t like the outer colonies (called Belters) because the people born there are often taller and thinner because of gravity differences. As such, the Belters distrust and don’t like Earthers. This causes all sorts of controversy. It was interesting to see the “united humanity reaches space” notion in a bit more of a realistic view.

Overall, I would call this book a READ. You can easily tell if you’re drawn to this genre or not, and if you are I think there’s a good chance you’d like the story. It has its flaws, and the ending seems a little odd, but not unsatisfying. The bad guys in this book are not super clear, but the threat is there. To me, this is an interesting twist and is a lot closer to the decisions we must make in everyday life.


Review: The Age of Miracles: A Novel by Karen Thompson Walker

As a middle schooler, life can be pretty difficult. Between your body doing odd things that seem impossible (random erections or suddenly bleeding for a week at a time) and the sudden interest in other members of your species as potential mates, tweens need little outside influence to make life more trying. Unfortunately for Julia, the world is starting to stop spinning.

As you all (hopefully) know, Earth rotates on its axis. A complete rotation takes approximately 24 hours, which gives us our handy cycle of day and night. It also influences the weather, distribution of oceans, habits of animals, and magnetosphere (that last one is pretty darn important). I was interested to read about living through the experience of the Earth slowing down, so I grabbed The Age of Miracles from my local library’s ebook service.

Life is pretty awesome for Julia. She plays soccer, she has good friends, and her family is pretty happy. One day, however, scientists realize that the spin of the Earth has begun to slow. As such, new hours bleed into every. Over time, the spin keeps slowing until days and nights are long affairs and humanity can’t naturally keep up with them. Soon, every part of life is thrown out of balance.

Overall, the book told a decent speculative fiction story of what might happen if the rotation of the Earth began to slow. I enjoyed the perspective of a middle schooler for these events. When you are younger, the world isn’t the same as it is when you’re an adult. You don’t always have all the facts and most of your world revolves around your parents and your close friends. Though unfortunate for Julia, it was interesting to read about her comfortable world falling apart.

The science in the book seemed a bit odd at times. Though the author cites that she had her work checked over by an astrophysicist who deemed it all “plausible,” I felt like there would be more of a noticeable difference for the characters in the story. It may have been a result of the point of view. Some aspects were there, like plants having difficulty with longer days and nights, as well as the magnetosphere being in danger. Other points weren’t as noticeable, like the fact that the world’s oceans would start to reallocate at the poles. It also seemed a bit odd to me that it took a somewhat substantial amount of time for people to realize the days and nights were longer. When everyone finally notices the slowing, it is staying dark until around 8:00 am in the summer (northern hemisphere). I feel like that would have been a pretty obvious occurrence.

The writing style is interesting. I specifically enjoyed the way the author described some things in an almost abstract way. It seemed fitting to what you notice when events occur—the glint of American flag pins, dark suits, and red ties rather than the names or faces of the politicians speaking. One aspect of her style I didn’t enjoy was the use of the “Little did I know this would be my last…” tactic. It seems that she relied too heavily upon the use of “I was wrong about that” or “I would later find out I was right” to make the story suspenseful. Used tastefully, this can work out fine, especially in memory-based fiction. I felt it was overdone here, though.

The novel ends with an overwhelming sense of melancholy. I do think the book did quite well in establishing the sense of impermanence and lack of control that humans go through when they are adolescents. The Earth’s spin slowing down was an interesting take on the story, but the same story could have be written about a middle schooler without that inclusion. Granted, if it hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have been drawn to pick up the book.

This is another READ WITH CAUTION. I was impressed by several parts of the novel, but there were also a few parts that seemed lacking. As such, I can’t get fully behind everyone needing to read this book. It was a decent speculative fiction novel, and a pretty good story about being a teenage girl in the midst of confusing times.


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