Score: 93+/100 (9.3+ out of 10)
Of All Faiths & None draws a very flattering comparison to War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy, for better or for worse. This book has very similar themes about human beings living in a time of war—a time in which those who take up arms are considered both heroes and cannon fodder while those who avoid war are considered cowards. World War I takes the place of the Napoleonic Wars (in War & Peace) for the sake of this comparison. Tolstoy's work is an all-time classic and one of the greatest novels ever written by one of the greatest novelists who ever lived, so those are humongous footprints for author Andrew Tweeddale, who makes an ambitious and valiant effort, to follow.
The thing you really need to consider is that War & Peace was written at a very different time, a time before the Internet, smartphones, and even radio. Think about that for a second: Tolstoy's work preceded radio. People literally had far less to entertain themselves with in the late 1800s, so books like Tolstoy's were a godsend, even when such books—great and widely acclaimed as they were—were often incredibly convoluted, incredibly complex, and incredibly long. The concept of a novel has evolved a lot since then, for better or for worse. You don't get Moby Dicks or David Copperfields anymore, great books, but ones in which you very slowly, very gradually get to know a group of characters over the course of 15+ hours or 20+ hours of reading.
So what does that have to do with Of All Faiths & None, well, it's beautifully written, it's well formatted, but it's just too much sometimes. There are over a dozen major characters you're supposed to know and care about through the course of the novel. This includes, in no particular order, Basil, Rose, Kit, Adrian, Celia, Elizabeth, Robert, Krishnamurti, Christian, Sir Julius Drew, Emily, Peter, and Poley. You're constantly introduced to more and more characters, and it just seems like a bunch of them start to blur together until they almost become the same person. Maybe that's to the author's credit. Perhaps these people are all foils of one another, intended for the sake of comparison and contrast. There is some degree of brilliance to that. You see a bit of of Christian and Peter in Adrian, who we chose as our favorite protagonist. You see a bit of Rose in Emily.
The first 150-250 pages of this novel may not be the most exciting introduction to an ultimately exciting novel, in fact we kinda wanted to give up half way through. We aren't allowed to, but we felt like it. The reason is that so many different characters were doing so many different things, many of which didn't seem all that meaningful or connected. Apparently, this book took 18+ years to finish, and it really shows. You really get the feeling that many different sections of this book were written at very different times in the author's life. There are times when the plot seems to be spinning its wheels and dragging such as when the Lutyens do... well, almost anything they do for the first half of the book.
The first half of the book feels like some Pride & Prejudice stuff. It feels like a bunch of bored European people doing bored European people things (like riding horses) while trying to hook up with each other and debate about their philosophical and religious ideas. However, there are also times when the writing and the action are downright epic and beautiful such as some of the descriptions of major battles near the end of the book.
Many of the major battles of World War I have a place in here including the battle of the Somme and Passchendaele.
The descriptions of war are truly visceral and tragic. You really feel the effects of war when the war finally stops being a thing out there somewhere to having a direct influence on the characters' live. These effects are best exemplified by the struggles and fates of Christian, Rose, and Adrian, but all the characters feel the global conflict in one way or another. This book is a reminder that it isn't only the soldiers in the military who suffer, it's the civilian population as well. Everyone experiences the conflict even though they all experience it differently.
One of our favorite parts of the book and one of the most interesting parts involves the handing out of white feathers, the mark of a coward. The good looking women in society are assigned the responsibility of handing out these white feathers to males who aren't actively participating in the war effort, but this takes a rather interesting turn for a few of the characters when this turns personal.
One thing we briefly wanted to talk about is the topic of religion in this book. It's obviously supposed to be a major focus of the book, as you can tell from the title and the frequent religious discussions that are had, but it really falls flat and seems really unnecessary. Be honest with yourself and ask: Does the presence of Krishnamurti actually make this book better? All he really serves to do is show how easily swayed some of the characters (like Emily) are to new ideas—esoteric ideas and ideologies. You get this same thought from discussions of Christianity and a cautionary story about corn gods who demand animal and eventual human sacrifices.
Now, we think we get what the author was going for. Religion and ideologies like Fascism and Nationalism—which would bring the world into an even bloodier conflict later in the 20th century—are comparable in that both groups of thought can have a hypnotic and controlling influence on a population. We get it. The problem is that this isn't a book about World War II, it's a book about World War I, a war fought due to political alliances between nations, not their ideologies. So, at the very most, this theme can be seen as some kind of foreshadowing that never seems to come to fruition in the confines of the novel itself.
Another thing we have to be honest about is how we felt about the characters. It was somewhat interesting to see how Basil became almost unrecognizable by the end of the war, though we can't remember much else interesting about him. Christian's fate is terrible, but it didn't hit as hard as it should have because Christian was lost in a shuffle of over a dozen to two-dozen characters the author was trying to show us and develop. Peter was introduced to us as a very major character, one of the first major characters we meet, but he flops as a compelling protagonist and gets completely overshadowed by a character we'll get to soon.
This is really the Adrian and Rose show, whether the author intended it to be that way or not. Adrian IS the main protagonist of the novel. He is the one directly involved in the conflict who has a deep longing to see his home and loved ones again. His story really clicked with us on an emotional level. Christian on the other hand, while having a similar arc, was quickly sidelined and relegated to side-character status by the middle of this book. What we can say is that this book, particularly in its portrayal of Adrian, made us more appreciative.
Imagine being stuck in a rat-infested trench, unable to even stand up or sit up straight without fear of having your head blown off. Imagine having to be ready to dawn your mask when the mustard gas comes. Imagine not being able to use the restroom or sleep comfortably or being able to see or hold your loved ones. It's a really sobering thought!
There are also some beautiful quotes, some involving the nature of life and death. Perhaps the best quote from this book is:
“When someone is killed I think that the world becomes a little dimmer, as if a tiny light has been extinguished. Just a tiny light in a hundred million lights and most people won’t notice it. It’s not as if they have died of old age when that light has naturally faded away. It’s when someone is cut down before their time, before God’s chosen time, the world then gets a little dimmer. You read about people lying on the battlefield with expressions of contentment on their faces. I’ve never seen it. The only faces I’ve seen are those who are scared, or in pain or know the horror of it all. It’s the same when people deliberately sin.”
This ambitious novel that took 18+ years to write does a lot of things right. It is well-written, well-formatted, and well-researched. It also really shines at times.
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 93/100 (9.3 out of 10)
When it comes to beautiful, emotional, inspirational poetry, it doesn't get much better than Midnight Blue: The End of Fear by Margaux J. Detterer. This book is about keeping promises to yourself, having faith that everything will work out for the better no matter your situation now, and having the courage to face the future with relentlessness and optimism.
Every poem in here is unique and packs a punch and provides something unique and beautiful.
Writing about a loved one is nothing new in poetry, but “I'll Be There” is such an elegant, powerful poem about the poet's mother, a mother who raised her after her father passed away. You can really feel the bond and connection that the author and her mother feel for each other, being both mother-daughter and best friends who are always there for each other. But the poem isn't entirely rosy and idealistic, in fact there's some tension and intrigue in it. And we love that. It appears that the poet feels so strongly and thinks so highly of her mother, that she's ridden with fear over letting her down and not being able to live up to her legacy. One thing is for sure: the love between this mother and daughter is raw and real.
Our favorite poem in this whole book—and the one that epitomizes its grand, over-arching themes—is “I Am Not Broken.” The reason this particular poem is so incredible is that it effectively puts across two separate and equal—equal and opposite—tones. On one hand, the tone is very dark as it discusses feelings of being alone, defeated, and abandoned. At the same time, it also has an uplifting and inspiration side.
Perhaps our favorite line in this poem and the whole book is “I am under construction.” There's something very gritty and relatable about that phrase and concept. We are all under construction in one way or another. It's also a poem about taking personal accountability and responsibility for one's own future happiness or success. Happiness and success aren't things that are just going to be given to the poet, they're things the poet is going to have to fight for and earn. In this poem, the author says that they will own their flaws, failures, and lost battles. That means that they're going to use negative experiences to learn from and build on. They are transforming like a moth or butterfly. Another great part of this poem reads: “I am the light in my darkness / I am the hope in my roughness.” There's a real beat and rhythm to it.
The poem “Rise and Shine” is another of our very favorites in this book. The reason is how feisty and fiery this poem is. It's a curb stomp to everyone who has looked down on and abandoned the poet when she needed them. It's a middle finger to the critics, the trolls, and the haters who tried to bring about her downfall. There's a reverse-psychology to this poem as the poet thanks all of these people for the meanness, neglect, and cruelty they showed her because they made her a better person, a stronger person, a wiser person, a more independent person. She thanks a hater for giving her an opportunity to prove them wrong. How great is that?
There are a few errors that are pretty easy to overlook. For example, on page 35, you get the phrase “start wonder to yourself” when it should be “start wondering to yourself.” Another time, on page 27, there's the phrase “I fight for you in every breathe” when it should be “I fight for you in every breath.” Those things are easy to overlook.
What we have here is a really solid book of poems that you can check out on Amazon!
Score: 87/100 (8.7 out of 10)
Simply put, Trailer Trash Havana by Junio Carols is immensely FUN and hilarious. It is like an episode of The Simpsons or Carol Burnett Show, you're presented with these incredibly flawed but simultaneously endearing, lovable idiots who are constantly getting themselves into a pickle. We almost wonder if this kind of satirical humor was what Elizabeth Reinach had been going for with her series back in winter. It seems to be executed quite well here.
The title pretty much sets the tone for this book, not to say that the book itself is trashy, but the characters are—and we love this book for that reason! These characters are such goofballs, you can't help but read on to see what shenanigans they'll get themselves into.
What's a little strange is that despite this overall really goofy ensemble cast of characters, the main character (in our opinion), Willie, is actually a character with a really gritty, realistic, and serious plight. He is a gay young man living in what we presume to be a southern state, disowned by his father before his father's death and living a life on the edge. Willie wanted so badly to appease his father and society that he seriously tried dating an attractive woman, something which flopped (literally). Because of his struggles and his overall positive disposition, you can't help but sympathize with Willie. In a lot of ways, he is the most moral character. He's not out to get money, rip people off, live above his means, dodge ICE, get into scraps or squabbles (if he can help it), he's just out to find his soulmate and live a reasonably happy life. So, when he finally seems to find what he's been looking for, you can't help but be happy for him.
One of the other main characters is Lucinda, who some might argue is the central character of the book. Lucinda is introduced to us as a 59-year-old woman with a bar and a reputation—a reputation for being a desirable woman back in her day and being recognized by many in the community, especially lecherous men. Well, those glory days of being glamorous are winding down. She is married to Roberto, who realizes that Lucinda's 60th birthday is coming up, and plans a huge, happy surprise birthday party for her. Indeed, this birthday party is the centerpiece of the book and the source of much of our enjoyment.
There's also Harry and Lena, a goofy couple who seem to have been together for a long time and mostly tired of one another. Lena insists that Harry make her food or she won't eat unless he does it. Do you know someone like that?
Due to a string of internal and external circumstances—multiple conflicts coming to fruition at once—the birthday party is anything but happy and an enormous slapstick brawl ensues! And, my, is it glorious!
Something we really appreciated about this book was the humor. This book is immensely lewd and funny. For example, there are two side-characters named Elvira and Dicky. We hear that Elvira is a bit of a nymphomaniac and wants to know if Dicky will live up to his name. Elvira, it turns out, is one of those cat ladies who loves her cats. They are often called “pussies.” So, we get a lot of innuendos concerning them too. For example, when they move into a home together, it becomes their new “pussy heaven.” Elvira's breasts are described as being like “torpedoes” or “bazookas” and Dicky's eyes are said to pop out of his eyes when he sees them.
There's a scene when Lucinda is demanding that Roberto aggressively kick people out of her birthday party whom she doesn't like. She then says that he better do it or she'll “blame [him] for a long time.”
Yeah, this book is a lot of fun and will give you quite a few chuckles. What's a bit odd and simultaneously awesome about this book is that it does go back to a semi-serious story line involving Willie on a cruise ship with who we believe may be the new love of his life. What we're trying to say is... this book actually ends up being quite emotional, which is strange because it seemed clear throughout the rest of the book that we weren't supposed to take it seriously. That's like if you start tossing things on concrete before it hardens. We've been conditioned to not “care too much” and yet we're expected to care a lot by the end.
And that's ok, because we get it. We actually do. This book wasn't just about a bunch of stupid couples doing stupid things, it was about a bunch of people who—despite being rough around the edges—were still human and still loved (or lusted) after someone else. People need people. People need companionship, even people who seem like they have nothing else going for their lives. That's actually quite a powerful statement.
Check this book out on Amazon!
Score: 87/100 (8.7 out of 10)
Finding Happiness in the Dark is a short and sweet self-help book by Kenneth Liddane that champions the power of positive thinking, the conservation of energy in a metaphysical sense, and one's ability find and achieve happiness.
This book is summarized by one quote: “Our best hope to be happy then becomes living with a positive and constructive lifestyle, and experience each moment to its full potential which will naturally help us become aware of every emotional response including happiness.”
Happiness is the key concept in this book, perhaps even above energy, which is also important. The author challenges us to really meditate on and think about the way we view happiness. Is it a state of mind? Something we achieve? Something we earn? Something that's given or granted to us for some external reason?
The author challenges us to consider such questions as (to paraphrase), “Do I feel happy when _______?” and “Would I be happy if I had ________?” or “Would I be happy if I achieved _________?”
The author does a great job at showing the reader that your happiness should not be contingent on external things such as winning a prize or getting a new car. There are loads of people out there who are technically “rich” but who struggle to be happy. Money does not buy happiness, and your happiness is not contingent on how much money you have or how many expensive cars or homes you own. Happiness can, however, be increased by things such as having loving friends and family, security, and a place to call home.
When we concern ourselves too much about what we don't have and what we want, we often ignore and take for granted the things we already have and need.
It may sound a bit cliché to summarize it this way, but true happiness comes from within. It isn't given, granted, or gifted. It is taken, accepted, and appreciated.
The book also concerns stress and how it can throw our energy balance out of whack. We're not talking about calories of kilowatts here, we're talking about something more metaphysical than that: spiritual energy. You might call it willpower or morale—the drive to do and accomplish things. When stress isn't managed well, you can experience an energy drain. It can make you feel like you can't do things or don't want to do things. We've all been there at one point in our lives—when there's just too much to do, a mountain of insurmountable tasks. The author encourages us to deal with stress in a healthy way. We often tend to overdo things, and this rat race world seems to encourage it. Instead, we should handle things bit by bit, consciously and conscientiously, realizing that sometimes enough is enough and good enough is good enough.
Does that mean that avoiding stress is always a good thing? No. The author advocates that some stress, like moderate exercise, is good. People forget, however, that overdoing things that they feel are “good” for them (like exercise) can actually be counterproductive. Case in point: you might think that reading a lot or studying a lot are good things, but are they good things if they lead you to lose many hours of sleep at night? The key is to remember why we do things: to enrich ourselves and our lives because doing so makes us happy.
Another major concept in the book related to happiness and energy is the idea of “success.” The author concludes: “Success is a result of doing something we enjoy and makes us happy” and that all the side-benefits we get from doing what we love—money, prizes, etc.—are just that: side-benefits, extra stuff.
You don't have to be the best. You don't have to win them all. But you can be the best that you can be, and you can win 'em when and where it counts.
This is a worthwhile self-help book from the mind of a hynotherapist and life coach, which makes it extra interesting. The writing and formatting are passable, although leave something to be desired. For example, the author chooses omit indentations before paragraphs. They also sometimes use two punctuation marks simultaneously, such as using both a period and a question mark together. So, ultimately, this writing and formatting are a bit rough around the edges and the book itself could've used a rewrite or two. However, the concepts and ideas are very useful and inspiring.
Check out this book on Amazon!
Score 92/100 (9.2 out of 10)
Now, hold up, wait a minute... before you think this book is just another compilation of random poems about social events and activism, just know that it isn't. This book of poems actually has a narrative—a story inspired by real-life events. In other words, there's a lot of interesting, page-turning prose in here!
Let's get this off our chests right now: this book is simultaneously incredibly frustrating and incredibly fascinating. On one hand, you can't help but turn the pages to find out what's going to happen next. On the other hand, you dread it and want to throw the book across the room into a wall because of how remarkably frustrating and bone-headed the main character, Jon, is.
Some of the decisions that the character Jon makes are downright moronic and idiotic, and yet you can't help but read on to find out if he finally realizes how moronic and idiotic he is being. Grrrrrr... Jon grinds our gears in a way that few characters have. At the very least he is an enabler who refuses to see the warning signs, red flags, the writing on the wall, the blaring sirens coming from each and every direction shouting: “STOP, YOU FOOL!” Perhaps in the nicest way we can put it, he is a morally gray, albeit unlikable main protagonist. He is not that sympathetic of a character, and yet we still can't help but read more about him? Why? Well, maybe it's because we're gluttons for punishment and want to see if this book ends in something dramatic, violent, or even gory. It really seemed to be leaning that way. We'll get back to it in a minute, but this book features aspects of the mystery and horror genres married to a prose (and poetry) that's mostly about psychiatry and romance, if you can even call it romance.
Keep in mind, this book is a “fictional memoir” but based on actual events. However, for some reason, the author decides to use his whole full name as the character, then provide an epilogue that seems really... outing. The epilogue, which even covers the selection of the title and some of the writing process, seems to contradict the introduction which states that the events are fictitious and the author does not approve of the character's choices. On the contrary, it almost seems like in the end that the author is performing some sort of apologetics—trying to excuse the excusable decisions of the character by blaming them on malpractice, hormonal imbalances, and mental illness. We're just calling it like we see it. Maybe we see it wrong. That probably wasn't the author's intention. Our take isn't intended as definitive or true, just how we interpreted this book based on what's in it. We're being honest: Jon as a character is frustrating, irresponsible, and often downright incompetent, especially for the position/career/occupation that he supposedly holds throughout the book.
We get to see a career therapist of multiple decades get taken for a ride, manipulated like a puppet, and be pulled on a leash from one dog park to the next. It is quite agitating. How does someone with decades of experience working with people with mental health problems get himself manipulated and fooled by a woman with very obvious mental health problems? That would be the equivalent of Garry Kasparov in a serious chess game opening that game with pawn to H4, or getting himself scholar's mated by a club-level player. That's like if Tom Brady took a knee while in the red-zone down by 4 points with 18 seconds left. There are just things that professionals do not and should not do. Like, how bad do you have to be at your job to keep inviting a problem with a client to escalate this badly? Well, there is somewhat of an explanation, but we're trying not to spoil it. That's part of the mystery of the book.
What we can tell you is that the other major character in the book, Kulai, is absolutely frightening and unbelievably menacing. She is, simply, the villain of this book. Yes, we're supposed to kinda feel bad for her. Yes, we're supposed to kinda sympathize with her, appreciate her poetry, and empathize with her feelings/needs for companionship and healing. However, it became very obvious to us very quickly that this woman was one step away from becoming Charles Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer. She clearly uses the sympathy gained regarding the loss of her daughter like a tool. Her thoughts, words, and actions become increasingly obsessive and unsettling. Alarm bells are ringing, and Jon simply keeps dismissing them. In fact, he ends up leading her on and inviting these things. He even allows her to bother him during a family vacation and continue to send her disturbing e-mails containing suggestive images—sorry, images containing beautiful poses and “conservative... negligee”—as always seems to be the case. That kinda sounds like a whole load of BS. Perhaps Jon is interesting as an unreliable narrator in that sense. We just don't trust his take because his narrative doesn't seem to add up.
Rather than just telling her, “NO, THIS NEEDS TO STOP RIGHT NOW” he daintily says things like (to paraphrase), “Please stop doing that” or “Please, I'm feeling uncomfortable” or “thank you for your incredibly beautiful love poem to me.” And that's when we kinda challenge the eventual conclusion of this novel. If these things were really caused by increased testosterone or thrown-off hormone levels because of an unscrupulous, negligent, or incompetent doctor, wouldn't he have pounced on her too? Why is Jon the one always being pursued and pounced on like he's some kind vulnerable gazelle prancing around the Serengeti as hordes of lions, hyenas, cheetahs, and jackals wait to pounce on his delicious near-60-year-old slab of amateur bodybuilding meat?
Wouldn't he have responded aggressively or passionately if his hormones were the way that they were? Why would he, instead, sit back passively and allow things to happen? That doesn't seem like something high levels of free testosterone would make you do. High levels of free testosterone would enhance your masculine, sexual, and aggressive urges. You would pursue, you wouldn't just lie there like a victim and take it like the character Jon does. So that just makes the character Jon's narrative seem even more untrustworthy, unreliable, and suspicious.
At the same time, you do get hints of something not being right with Jon's hormone levels and his head. For instance, he starts having delusions of grandeur such as when he quotes the Bible, inserting himself as “I am” (implying he feels as powerful as God). He states he feels a sense of being on top of the world or manic. He also starts having dreams and thoughts of a sexual nature similar to Kulai's. He then goes on to write this really weird and disturbing poem to Kulai that even makes Kulai—as creepy as she is—weirded out and uncomfortable. In this poem, Jon shares some kind of fantasy about polygamy or prostitution, believing it to be romantic. Even Kulai, as crazy as she is, is like, Jon, what even the F is this?
But we digress. Hormones can make you think and do some weird stuff. If you've ever been on birth control or TRT, you know what we mean. If you don't have someone constantly supervising you, and you let your hormones get really out of whack, you run the risk of making some really irrational decisions.
Well, let's get around the complaining, and get to what's good: this book is tense. It is intense. Even though you may not like Jon as a character, you still might worry about him and want him to change his ways. And if you don't worry about him, you still eagerly wait to see what happens like he's a victim in some slasher movie going down the obviously-dangerous dark basement as you, the audience, shout at him to not go down there.
Kulai will most certainly have you on the edge of your seat. She is a spine-tingling, bone-chilling villain very similar to Desirae from Perfectly Imperfect by Darlene Winston, our “Best Villain” last season. Kulai just seems like a homicide waiting to happen. You're just waiting for the moment when she shows up at Jon's home with a weapon unannounced or breaks a vase, then stabs him with a shard of it during a session. Do any of these things happen? We won't spoil it.
Another thing is that this book is competently written and formatted. Not only are the prose pretty good, but the presentation of the e-mails, text messages, and poems are pretty good. Now, the poems are probably not going to win major awards on their own, but they do support the narrative as both Kulai and Jon share their evolving feelings this way.
This book is definitely worth a read. Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 90/100 (9.0 out of 10)
The Secrets of the Kings is a solid and intriguing first novel by Nora Delzelle. The book follows the main protagonist, Alex, along with her entourage—Lynn, Emily, and Gabriel—as they seek to uncover the mystery behind a mystical, magical mask with ties to Egyptian mythology.
Can Alex Kincaid overcome the threat of her homicidal ex-blind-date, Chance? Can she summon the strength and the courage to overcome an ancient evil that's over 5,000 years old? What new powers might she unlock and discover with the help of Osiris' mask?
This really is a solid novel. The writing is solid. The formatting is solid. The cover is absolutely amazing. The characters do their jobs for the most part. The plot is ok, and some of the wrinkles are interesting. In fact, the plot is downright captivating at times, but it's intermittent. It is very clear that this is the author's first rodeo, and that's ok. They did a superb job all things considering.
Beside from the writing and the formatting, the mythological inspiration behind the story is very compelling. The core conflict between Osiris and Set is fascinating. Every portrayal of that rivalry is entertaining in some way, mirroring Loki & Thor or Zeus & Hades.
The author clearly had a lot of ideas: some good, some iffy, and some simply generic. Maybe that's what brings this book down a little bit: the genericness. When it comes down to it, this is a book about a girl who is much more special than she realizes, who happens to own a McGuffin (the mask), who happens to be in love with a nigh-perfect male friend (Gabriel), who happens to need to save that male friend from an ancient evil in a trial by combat. And there's a pseudo love triangle with the clearly-not-right-for-her-because-he's-homicidal Chance that quickly gets shattered, returning to the status quo of a clear-cut two-way. Girl likes boy. Boy likes girl. They denied it all their lives, but they're clearly meant to be together. It's really nothing that new. We know how that story plays out.
You almost get the feeling like this whole book was likely written as some sort of love letter to a crush the author has, a crush whose name is probably Gabriel. That may not be the case, but that's how it comes across.
Gabriel is just such a boy scout. He's always there for Alex and has been there for her through thick and thin, denying his feelings for her until the plot called for it because the MC needed someone to rage over. Is there at least one instance when he isn't a perfect boy scout? Well, yes, actually. It's when he goes too hard on Alex while sparring with her, but that's clearly because he cares about Alex and wants her to be able to defend herself from Chance and Set. It's the equivalent of a coach or teammate pushing an athlete to do better and challenge themselves. Does it give Gabriel an edginess? Kinda, but not really. But Gabriel will likely be the favorite character for most readers. He needs to be. In a lot of ways, he is a catalyst for a lot of the things that happen and the decisions that are made, making him quite an effective supporting character.
Lynn and Emily, on the other hand, are not nearly as compelling. They aren't much different from Marge Simpson's sisters. They're funny and amusing sometimes, but you really don't like or get behind them as much as you do Gabriel and Alex. They just are--they're friends who are along for the ride. They're third and fourth wheels. But, hey, a car needs four wheels to drive, right? That's a fair argument.
Yes, you do get some tragic backstory for Lynn very late in the book that's supposed to help you to understand Alex's eventual decision. But, first of all, we already knew that Alex was going to make that decision because it was the only one she could've logically made. Second of all, why are we given a character's back story so late? When you do that, the only way the reader can fully appreciate the character is either in hindsight or via a rereading of the book, and even then the reveal doesn't hit the way the author probably intended due to the genericness of the tragic back story. It is exactly what you think it is. That's not really a spoiler. You can easily guess what it is.
Now we come to the big hitters of the story: Alex and Set. This, unlike the relatively predictable love story, is quite interesting. Alex is an inheritor of the mask of Osiris, an enchanted artifact that works similar to the Dark One's Dagger in Once Upon a Time. When you have it, you wield the power, but you also bear its curse. Osiris, in this telling of the myth, championed law and order while Set championed freedom and choice. Interesting, we know. It almost makes it sound like Set is a very sympathetic and understandable villain, if they're a villain at all. The thing is that Set took things too far and became the harbinger of chaos and anarchy, because of course he did. He's pretty much the devil of Egyptian mythology.
The one who wears the mask of Set, similar to the one who wears the mask of Osiris, is destined to be in conflict with and try to kill the other. The masks are able to grant the users extraordinary powers including super strength, superhuman reflexes, a built-in aim-bot (essentially), mad martial arts skills, and even flight. But they're a double-edged sword. Not only do you inherit some of the powers and personalities of Set or Osiris—which is troubling enough—you also inherit the personalities of all the mask's bearers including homicidal, violent, and aggressive ones. They gradually overwrite your own personality.
The masks can even make you manipulative and grant you the powers of suggestion: a power to make others do things they wouldn't otherwise do, as we see with Chance. And, by the way, why is every secondary villain in every fantasy book named Chance? Are the Chances of the world inherently destined to be mid-tier baddies? Just a thought. This inheriting of personalities is actually why we compared it to the Dark One's Dagger, because it too carried the same curse: the darkness of all the ones who bore or wielded it before.
The slight problem with that is, we don't think Alex struggles with the mask enough. Her powers and abilities don't seem as earned as they should be. She's training, yes, but it's the powers of the mask that are giving her the ability to do things, not Alex herself. In fact, Alex herself is kinda a softy. We hear she has some kind of martial arts training, but she has practically lost all memory of it. She says she's too tired or that she needs a break. It's not like heroes always have to be super-confident and not whiny, just look at Luke and Anakin Skywalker, Neo from The Matrix, or even Rocky. There were times when they were naive and/or complained. It just needs to be handled well, and there needs to be some sort of arc or development.
Alex's arc seems more about other people and the mask than it does herself. Does Alex change and become more courageous and determined? Yes. But are these changes due to her personal journey or because of some external influences like Lynn talking her up, or Gabriel being in danger, or the mask being special? The latter seems to be the case.
When they finally get to using weapons and go ax-throwing, it's treated as more of a group of friends hanging out and having fun than it is actually training. It's like they're bowling or going to a movie together. There really seems to be a lack of urgency, like Alex would rather screw around and play with her powers than actually train for this life-or-death ordeal. It shouldn't be that way.
And let's just quickly mention that almost every scene that Chance is in is incredibly uncomfortable. Make of that what you will, but that really might warrant a trigger warning. It's like jumping from one unspeakable assault to the next. And it's really unnecessary, unless the point was to show that the mask was corrupting like the One Ring or something. But if this were intended for young adults, this may not fit so well. No, the assaults aren't full-on sexual, but there are implications. To the author's defense, this kind of thing isn't unprecedented in young adult fiction. Peeta in The Hunger Games does attack Katniss in the later books because he has been brainwashed by the villains to do so. It is excusable. However, that was one time. For some reason, we need a repeat in this book.
Anyway, credit where credit is due: the cover is great, the writing is good, the formatting is good, and there are a few interesting characters and ideas in here. It's a valiant first attempt by a promising new author!
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 86/100 (8.6 out of 10)
Don't let the somewhat unnerving art and lack of formatting fool you, The Journey Home by Gabriel Bron is surprisingly a very heartfelt and powerful narrative about a family dealing with their aging parents and their declining health. Specifically, this book focuses on the cognitive declines of elderly parents including those suffering from Alzheimer's.
Something that really elevates and brings some extra light to this emotional, heavy narrative is the narrator's snark and sarcasm. Gabriel Bron as a narrator is almost as snarky and sarcastic as Joel Shoemaker from Bacon Grief. If you don't remember, that was one of the funnest/funniest books we read last season and Joel Shoemaker was one of the most entertaining writers. We love the narrator in The Journey Home. He is so funny and really takes these sad and tragic situations in stride.
There are moments of gold in this regard such as when Gabriel reflects on a time he had to go through a process to adopt two lizards before comparing that experience to admitting his parents to a care facility. There are lines like describing when one parent's heart had passed its “expiration date.” Though these lines are funny, they aren't necessarily disrespectful or belittling. If anything, they seem to be part of a form of coping—dealing with a terrible situation by finding some humor and irony in it.
Gabriel insists, perhaps sarcastically, that this story isn't about him and that he's not its main character. He insists that his sister, Kate, is the true heroine of the story with his mother and father as protagonists. Alzheimer's disease is identified as the villain, and it continues to terrorize the good guys throughout the course of the book.
Despite this insistence that he's not the hero of the story, he really seems to be. It's like a playful false humility that persists throughout the book. Gabriel just seems like a really fun and funny person. He's apparently some sort of snake wrangler or snake tamer and a linguist with knowledge of even archaic or obscure languages like Sanskrit. We see incidences of him being able to speak and understand some French and German. Ironically, his family has German roots, but German seems to be the one language he struggles with the most. It is possible that fact is played up for kicks and giggles, but the narrator often acts baffled by his working understanding of his father's German, especially when it comes to his idioms.
So, right off the bat, you find yourself rooting for Gabriel and his parents. Why wouldn't you? These people are shown in such a loving, sympathetic light even when they're grouchy or even aggressive, you still love and understand them the way the narrator does. You can feel the family bond and connection even when members forget things (like where “home” is) and even each other.
Gabriel and Kate realize that their fate may be similar to that of their parents as they are genetically inclined with a propensity for a neuro-degenerative problem.
There is a tragedy to what is happening, and it feels so real and raw. The fear of loss and uncertainty about the future are things that almost all of us can relate to. Those who've cared for sick or elderly parents/loved ones know the struggle.
There's also a layer of mystery to the book as we slowly reveal more and more about the parents that even their children weren't aware of for most of their lives. For example, the father seems to have a secret that he has kept locked away and is ashamed of. This is explored when we learn that a local restaurant actually used to be owned by the narrator's grandfather, and it was supposed to have been passed down. Why wasn't it? And why does the father act so defensively when asked about it? It's a mystery!
This kind of mystery, drama, and tension is present throughout.
The more we learn about the narrator's parents, the more interesting they become. For example, the narrator's father served in World War II and was a POW under Japanese occupation in the Philippines, a truly unenviable situation. The trauma he carries with him is difficult to put into words and yet easily understandable. The things he has seen and experienced are almost unspeakable.
You also get great quotes like: “Victory washes away the pain” and some truly beautiful moments like when the father kisses his Alzheimer's-ridden wife before bed only for her to respond, “I don't know who you are, but I really like you.”
So, what is it that keeps this beautiful, powerful, emotional, and funny book from passing the 90 point threshold? Well, for one, the formatting does not seem refined or finished. The absence of indentations at the beginning of paragraphs is the main indication of that. Another thing is the art. Does the art add to this book or does it distract and detract from it? We kinda feel like it distracts and detracts from it. The prose tells a very good narrative on its own. If anything, the art—which isn't our cup of tea—distracts the reader from the prose, which we've established as the best thing about this book.
But let's give the author/artist some credit. It really might just be a matter of taste. The art, despite featuring easily-recognizable human figures, borders on abstract with a flare of the bizarre. It may be most closely compared to the acrylic art by Kristan Ryan, art which said a lot with so little. Noticeable in most of these works of art is the issue of proportions, especially when it comes to the size of the neck in the proportion to the rest of the body. At the same time, there are works of art in here that actually are beautiful and have a degree of artistic merit. Case in point: the art on p. 206, p. 202, p. 196, and p. 190 are beautiful and heart-wrenching. Perhaps when the tone of the art became more serious and less cynical, the art itself became more appealing.
At the same time, there's the very real consideration that the tone of the book itself is quite cynical, so more cynical art may have been warranted.
All in all, the narrative carries this book, and it's a narrative worth hearing.
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 91/100 (9.1 out of 10)
Human beings are all of one species. They share similar wants and needs. Among these, human beings desire life, fairness, and to pursue happiness. At the same time, human beings are often short-sighted and make disastrous choices that set them (and future generations) up for failure, suffering, and even death—very unfair and unhappy futures. Human beings, despite being social animals, are often selfish and greedy. Human beings, despite being biological (living) beings who should be seeking ways to assure their survival, are often self-destructive.
This, as best as we can describe it, is The Human Paradox covered by Gilbert Mulley.
This book covers multiple layers of this paradox including how people treat each other, how people view themselves, and how people view and treat the environment, nature, and the Earth. The latter takes up the largest chunk of the book and appears to be its primary focus. Logically, how can human beings who need nature—oxygen, water, and food—take it for granted and destroy it? Would you burn down your own home? Of course not.
However, a home is something very visible and tangible. The Earth to most people is something that exists, but it's huge, somewhat abstract, and seemingly infinite. In terms of the latter, nothing could be further from the truth. The Earth is actually quite finite, and as humanity progresses from year to year, decade to decade, century to century, we seem to be depleting its resources and ruining it more and more.
When was the last time you seriously worried about not having drinking water? Think about it. Yes, there are times of drought and sometimes contamination of the water in the west (as we saw in Michigan), but it's extremely rare for people in the western world in modern times to seriously concern themselves with when they'll get their next sip of water. But what happens when this seemingly infinite resource starts becoming more and more scarce? The same can be said for oil, top soil, or our ozone layer. What happens when these things that we take for granted today aren't here for us 50-100+ years from now? With politicians, especially Conservatives, against handcuffing big businesses to ensure they look after their emissions, carbon footprints, and pollution, the future looks quite bleak. Politicians, after all, have relatively short term limits in the grand scheme of things. And their main objective, sad to say, is usually to get elected or reelected and remain that way for as long as possible. After all, do you start a whole career with the thought of being fired or quitting in a few years? Of course not. But because of this desire to get from one election to the next/one term to the next, politicians are pre-programmed to be short-sighted. They need results now or within the next couple years, not 50-100+ years from now when someone else or some other party can take the credit. That, unfortunately, doesn't put issues like global warming/climate change at the forefront where the author advocates they should be.
Climate change is at the forefront of this book. It is impossible to ignore that as that point is hammered home continuously. Human beings since the industrial revolution have increased the depletion of our ozone layer and global warming. This may be responsible for the growing occurrence of natural disasters like hurricanes and perhaps the heatwaves we've been experiencing. Temperatures are reaching record-highs in areas around the globe, potentially leading to a snowballing series of disasters in the future. What's frightening is how pernicious this all is—we notice the climate changing little by little, just small enough so that it can be conveniently ignored as the problem grows little by little. This is a serious issue that we can't continue to ignore if we are to survive and future generations are to have a world to inhabit. The author cites this as being as big an issue if not bigger than things like social justice, which gets a lot more attention because it has a more human or emotional appeal. We experience it first-hand, where as global warming appears to be happening in the background.
This book can sometimes be incredibly heavy-handed, and at times the argument regarding humanity's destruction of the Earth can become redundant. At the same time, this is a serious enough issue to warrant that. There are a few little things in this book that can seem a little irritating or strange.
The first thing that comes to our minds is that human beings are repeatedly referred to as a “species” as opposed to a race or a group of people that lives, breathes, and thinks. This classification feels very cold and dry. Human beings are almost treated or viewed like pests, parasites, plagues or scourges, and this can be somewhat uncomfortable or troubling if you're like some of us who view human beings as made in the image of God and inherited the Earth and all its creatures.
The author outright argues against this way of thinking, and it's warranted. The author also grew up being urged to go to church and learn about God. He saw that it didn't seem to be helping the environment. In fact, he saw that that way of thinking was making people feel entitled to mistreat animals as livestock and to take the Earth for granted as some sort of gift that wasn't bought or had to be earned. That seems somewhat fair. It just becomes a bit disturbing when the author makes references to things like walking through nature and meditating on it as if in prayer. The argument almost seems to be that the God of our fathers should be replaced by Mother Earth for practical reasons, and that's not necessarily something we support or advocate. At least the author does list spiritual needs as something significant.
What's also somewhat interesting is that the author continuously makes reference to the universe and the Earth being unfeeling, uncaring, cold, and emotionless yet still wants us to venerate them. At the same time—and we are 100% not making this up—when capitalism is described as unfeeling, uncaring, cold, and emotionless, it is a bad, evil thing that shouldn't be venerated or be an example to be followed. That's kinda a double-standard don't you think? Yes, capitalism has its flaws, but America is the richest, most powerful nation in the world because of it not in spite of it. America is far and away the #1 contributor to charitable causes in the world because of capitalism not in spite of it.
And, yes, there's poverty and suffering, just like there's poverty and suffering in 100% of the countries on Earth, ironically more pronounced in socialist countries like North Korea and Venezuela. There will always be poverty and there will always be suffering. That's life, unfortunately.
You cannot force prosperity on people. You cannot force someone to accept a six-figure or seven-figure job if they simply do not want the stress or pain associated with it. For example, you cannot force someone to become a pro boxer by shoving $1 million in their face if they would prefer not to get their head caved in or to put in the work to be conditioned for the role. You cannot ethically force someone to work in the fields from 5 AM to 10 PM in exchange for free rent like one of us endured. You cannot force people to be happy. You cannot force people to work. That would be a denial of human nature—a desire to be able to choose. Forcing people to work and forcing people to be how everyone else is and to do what everyone else is doing would be a denial of their humanity. But what do we know?
Gilbert Mulley has really poured their heart and years of research into making this book as good as it is, and it's a solid book with a really important message that has real-life and future implications.
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 96/100 (9.6 out of 10)
Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, a multicultural memoir by Allison Hong Merrill, is quite simply one of the best book we've read this year! It's up there with Holocaust Memoirs and Wild Colts Make the Best Horses. This is an easy 9.6 out of 10 (our highest ever score), and it goes without saying that score is very well-deserved and well-earned.
Allison, perhaps working with a team of editors and writers to refine this, somehow turned up a beautifully written and masterfully edited work of literature that's powerful and true to life.
The story of Allison's chaotic, tragic, yet inspiring life may not be entirely fresh or different for experienced readers of autobiographies and memoirs like ourselves, but the presentation is fresh. The story, as Allison tells it, takes up a wholly unique life of its own. That's a mouthful, but there's not really a better way to say it. Allison's story lives, breaths, and bleeds. You really cheer for her and wish her the best throughout all the difficult, trying, and challenging things she goes through.
It filled our hearts with anxiety, anger, compassion, worry, fear, hope, and intrigue. It really made us feel in a way that few other books, aside from maybe Holocaust Memoirs and When to Run: Born Scared, made us feel. What more could you ask for in anything put to paper than for it to make you feel powerful feelings and emotions?
Allison is an outstanding real-life protagonist who has us fully invested in her as if she's a hometown sports hero. Some things that stand out about her are her vulnerability, her optimism, her faith (in God), and her hope. There are so many times when she could've just given up (and she almost does), but she always finds the strength inside to live and fight on.
Meanwhile, Cameron--her Bruce Willis-looking, abusive ex-husband--is a terrifying, menacing, and diabolical real-life villain who we want to see get his comeuppance. At the same time, what's kinda frightening is that Cameron is still somewhat human and we saw a bit of ourselves in him. With Cameron, we learned how not to be and what red flags to look out for in a partner. You could say that God puts terrible people like Cameron in our lives to teach us something.
What's extra fascinating is that Allison has such a big heart and is so thoughtful that she still considers the feelings and reasoning behind the villainous Cameron rather than jumping to the conclusion that he's a total monster.
For instance, Allison dives into one particular argument between Cameron and his father that was very telling, highlighting Cameron's own traumatic upbringing and his history of rejection and abuse that are made to mirror her own. You start to see a bit of a Stockholm syndrome developing as Allison begins to make excuses for Cameron's inexcusable actions and her to desire to save and change him—a desire to make him into the husband she always dreamed of and to restore his faith in the Christian God. Even we as the readers kinda wonder if someone as terrible as Cameron might actually be redeemable. That's the kind of emotion, feeling, and hope that Allison evokes in us.
Although the tense and uncomfortable relationship between Allison and Cameron is central to the narrative, it's not the only major story thread going through this book. This book is surprisingly dense and actually quite long—over a hundred chapters in fact! But don't fret, they are lovely chapters. Woven in here are several stories including Allison's upbringing by her abusive, neglectful, and hateful father (and, to a lesser extent, her mother). While her father seems mostly irredeemable, similar to Cameron, her mother shows flashes of light. There are at least one or two heartbreaking moments including her mother, a woman struggling with a life-threatening form of diabetes that makes it impossible for her body to rid itself of waste, flooding her limbs with fluid. Her mother, who is essentially a victim of the same abusive and neglectful household, does not clean up or organize the home she flees to, leading to it being a virtual health hazard that Allison becomes ashamed of. Allison often discusses her mom as being just another adult woman in the home since for the longest time they don't share an emotional connection. Obviously, things like that tend to change closer to the end of someone's life.
Another interesting aspect of this story is culture and religion. Allison grew up in Taiwan, heavily influenced by Chinese culture. We see that in her family's veneration of ancestors and the “snake lady” creation myth.
When the LDS missionaries visit their family and show Allison another way of life and new beliefs, Allison begins a new journey—a spiritual journey—to find God and do God's will. That is perhaps why Allison is so forgiving and why she tries to see the good in even the worst people and situations. She even reasons that the bad things that happened to her in the past are what brought her to Utah to meet the love of her life, something which our editor can ironically relate to.
Some of us are immigrants and some of us have struggled to transition to the United States with limited English. We understand how frustrating that can all be. We also understand the fear and anxiety that comes with an expiring student visa or jumping through the fiery hoops of becoming an American citizen.
This book is simply amazing. We know it looks suspicious that there have been three consecutive 9.6/10 books, but they all earned it. They're all great in their own ways. This one, however, connected with us on a deeply emotional level—another level.
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 96/100 (9.6 out of 10)
The Value Equation: A Business Guide to Wealth Creation for Entrepreneurs, Leaders & Investors by Christopher Volk is a phenomenal business book with extraordinary value. Many of us are business people ourselves, so reading this was a real thrill!
Perhaps our favorite things about this book were the stories. There are stories in here about Elon Musk (Tesla), Daymond John (from Shark Tank), Warren Buffett, and Aaron Krause (Scrub Daddy). There are stories in here about companies like Disney, Pixar, Amazon, Tesla, FUBU, Berkshire Hathaway, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Apple, and more! Volk is able to brilliantly highlight the dos and don'ts of these notable people and their businesses.
Volk is truly brilliant and likely a genius of some sort. He has a special knack for evaluating business models, something which has helped him to become a leader for numerous publicly-traded, successful businesses. He is the Executive Chairman of STORE Capital Corp and on the board of directors of Banner Health and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation of Arizona. He is a former president, director, and CEO of multiple businesses, specializing in finance.
Volk is a self-proclaimed “finance guy,” and it clearly shows. His decades of rich and invaluable experience fill the pages of this book and have armed him with the know-how to put together his titular “value equation.”
And that's another thing we respect about this book: it deals in facts, statistics, and numbers rather than on idealism or dogma. You know what they say about numbers, right? The numbers don't lie. But Volk doesn't simply sit on the statistics and show off his formulations. Most importantly, he interprets them for his readers! And that's something we greatly appreciate.
We have encountered some brilliant and invaluable mathematical books in the past. The one that immediately comes to mind is Real-Time Earthquake Tracking and Localisation by George R. Daglish and Iurii P. Sizov. You may not remember this, but our main complaint about the book was simply that the data was presented in a very plain and dry fashion, often without explanation or interpretation. There are times in Volk's work when information and statistics are also presented in a plain and dry fashion, sometimes even in rapid-fire succession (percentages after percentages after percentages), however, at least Volk takes the time to explain and interpret the data in as coherent and interesting a way as he can.
Something else we wanted to mention is that you not only have to come prepared to understand some math, but you also need to come prepared for some jargon. That's par for the course. The author often uses acronyms like IPO (initial public offering), EMVA (equity market value added), MVA (market value added), YOM (“your own money), and OPM (“other peoples' money”). OPM (“other peoples' money”) is probably the most notable and unique of the six variables in his equation. You need to be prepared to remember what these acronyms mean, and it can be a bit of a challenge even for someone with an MBA. This is next-level stuff.
However, understanding it obviously pays, and Volk's success is proof of that.
If you want to read a truly groundbreaking business book, check this out on Amazon!