book tags · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Confessions Book Tag

I saw this tag on Keep Reading Forward (see original post here) and thought it sounded like fun, so I decided to give it a try.

It’s (book) confession time, everyone!

You’ve been warned. 😀

Which book did you most recently DNF?

The Casquette Girls by Alys Arden
To be honest, I gave this a good, fair chance to draw me in. The novel opens with an interesting premise as the main character returns to hurricane-torn Louisiana after attending school in France. Then it dives head first into mystery guys/bad boys, forbidden attraction, yada, yada, yada, and a slew of other YA tropes. It became so predictable and contrived that I just had to stop. But at least I liked the cover.

What book is your guilty pleasure?

Disney’s Descendants novels by Melissa de la Cruz

Admittedly, I don’t feel super guilty for reading (and liking) these books and the Descendants movies, but it’s fairly obvious – without telling my age – that I’m not exactly in their chief demographic. That being said, I still think these are fun adventure stories with clever spins on classic Disney characters.

Which book do you love to hate?

Get Married: What Women Can Do to Help it Happen by Candice Watters
*Cue evil laughter* Well, technically, I would say Fifty Shades of Gray, but seeing as I’ve never read that – and nor will I – I’m going to reserve my choice for a book I actually did read. And regrettably so. I covered all of my issues with this book in my lengthy review (which you can read here). But in short, I dislike this book and its message of what I would call relationship legalism where Watters’ chief thesis seems to be that the end result of marriage rests entirely on our shoulders and God is a mildly interested bystander. Granted, she never openly says these things, but that’s the book’s undercurrent. Overall, while her advice to women in their 20s is full of hope and encouragement, her advice to women in their 30s and beyond is more along the lines of “encouraging” you to grit your teeth and accept a state of unwanted lifelong singleness. That’s not helpful; instead, it’s discouraging, dismissive, and disrespectful.

Which book would you throw into the sea?

The End by Lemony Snicket
No doubt, this has to be the worst final novel in a series I have ever read (and hopefully will ever read). This final book in the expansive Series of Unfortunate Events was, to date, the first book I’ve ever read that made me want to literally heave it across the room (but only because I don’t live near an ocean). Talk about a book not only not worth reading in and of itself, but also not worth reading the previous twelve books to get to it. It gives the three lead characters no breaks even though they rightfully deserved some kind of reprieve. I get that the Series of Unfortunate Events was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek depressing but, for me, something has to make up for that. This final novel most certainly did not accomplish that and made me feel like I had eaten a giant box of mildly tolerable cereal only to discover there was no toy at the bottom.

Which book have you read the most?

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
I tried my best to calculate how many times I’ve read each book since I started perusing the series in 2005. To the best of my mathematical capabilities, I’ve figured that I’ve read Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets 24 times (as I started out with just those two books first); Prisoner of Azkaban, Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix, and Half-Blood Prince 23 times; and Deathly Hallows 21 times. Therefore, I’ve read the series in its entirety over 20 times. So, yes, I am an official Potter-head and proud of it! 😀

Which book would you hate to receive as a present?

Anything in the realm of erotica. I like any romance in the books I read to be driven by love and respect, not lust, cheapened sex, and anything goes. No thanks.

Which book could you not live without?

I have many favorites – can I just list them all? 😀 Hands down, I would be lost in a literary sense without the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, the Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer, the Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull, The Guardians of Childhood series by William Joyce, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and many others.

Which book made you the angriest?

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
In short, I hated this book and the characters made me feel like doing this:

The characters are reprehensible, the writing tries too hard to be literary, and the mystery element has no rhyme or reason for why characters do what they do. Furthermore, there are no heroes here, not even antiheroes, and no underlying sense of hope, forgiveness, redemption, or just plain ol’ common sense. Characters commit horrible acts and never face the consequences. Combine that with language and sex scenes befitting a trashy grocery store checkout line paperback and you’ve got one book that I simply could not get invested in on any level. Truly a waste of time and money if ever there was one.

Which book made you cry the most?

Love You Forever
by Robert Munsch

True confession time – I’m not a crier. It’s not that I have a heart of stone, it’s just that not many things move me to tears and/or tears aren’t my go-to reaction. If something does move me to tears, then it was – for me – truly impactful and touching. This book I remember my mom and I checked out of the library when I was little. While I didn’t cry then, I can now because the central poem in the book is a simple but touching declaration of love, not to mention the caregiver/cared-for roles end up getting reversed. Out of all the books I had read to me as a child, this one definitely stands out.

Which book cover do you hate the most?

Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
I try not to be too picky when comes it cover art because it is, after all, art, which is subjective. However, what I look for in a good cover is one that is tasteful and fits the story and its world, tone, and characters, whether that includes symbolism or not. But covers that go off into the proverbial left field and try to be too deep or clever earn no points from me. That being said, my least favorite cover art would have to be the chess-inspired image for Breaking Dawn. Not only does this image not make much sense in terms of its chess imagery in relation to the story itself, it also has nothing to do with the setting, characters, or anything else other than it retains the same black, white, and red motif from the previous three covers of the Twilight series.

I know the “formal” explanation is that the white queen is Bella, who finally comes into her own (whatever that means) in this novel . But a chess image? In chess, the queen is the most powerful piece because she can move in any direction (rank, file, or diagonally) and can capture any single opponent piece in her way; but she’s not the most valuable piece (that would be the king). The red chess piece in the background is a pawn, the least valuable piece in that it is the most restricted in mobility and ability to capture (pawns can move one or two squares to start, then one square after that and can only attack on the forward diagonal).

Thus, when I try to apply the symbolism here to the characters, I feel befuddled. I get that Bella, as the lead, becomes powerful thanks to her transformation. I get that she becomes less of a protected character and more of a protector. But there’s the underlying aspect that the queen is not the most valuable piece, so does that mean that while Bella is powerful she’s somehow lacking in value? And who, or what, is the pawn? The pawn is red (rather than white), meaning it’s an opponent’s piece, so I presume this represents someone not aligned with Bella. But who could that be? If that’s meant to stand for Jacob, that’s kind of cold to call him a pawn as it implies he’s weak and expendable (though Bella did play him early on). If it’s the Volturi, I’m not sure they qualify as weak or expendable (though their inclusion here is certainly disposable). If the image is symbolic of Bella’s old life, that could work as she’s certainly in opposition to it now and she did cast it aside. But again, why a pawn? How does that symbolize her old life? Did Bella view herself as a pawn before, as in weak and powerless? Not to mention the queen here isn’t in an immediate position to capture the pawn, so this isn’t intended to be an image of combat. Furthermore, pawns can be promoted to the status of rook, knight, bishop, or queen if you can get them across the board to the opponent’s side. So is that what this elusive pawn is trying to do, get across the board and past Queen Bella so it can be promoted to a more powerful status?

Oooh – my head hurts.
facepalm head hurts ugh no
Okay, I’m dropping this now. Makes me want to go play chess though.

Commentary · Publications

“Escaping the Grip of Grooming” – New Two-Part Article on Rivulet Collective

I recently penned an article for Rivulet Collective, an online Christian “magazine.” Below is a brief excerpt from each part (as this is a two-part article) followed by a link to each full article:

Part One:

George* was an unassuming, 40-something divorcé who worked from home and had a teenage daughter. He enjoyed reading and writing, he seemed friendly and polite, and he claimed to be a Christian. I was nearing 30 at the time and I too loved to read and write. So when George and I met in a creative writing class I led, I was enamored, despite the age gap.

Ours remained a casual friendship for nearly two years. We met nearly every Saturday for lunch at a restaurant to talk and share our writings and were also involved in a book club and writers’ group. Red flags slowly emerged, but initially I chose to ignore or make excuses for them.

Then one day during lunch, George started quizzing me about sex. That’s when I knew.

I was being groomed….

To read the rest of part one, go to:

Part Two:

[T]he abuser’s goal is to take advantage of you and have you become desensitized to sexual conversation and normalize bad behavior. This starts in small ways, such as jokes or passing remarks. It may move on to getting you interested in pornography or initiating physical advances. Desensitization is a diminished emotional response to negative stimuli – the more an abuser exposes you to sexual content, the more you become numb to it. This may lead to normalization, which is when you begin to see things originally believed to be disagreeable, even morally wrong, as now acceptable….

To read the rest of part one, go to:

Books & Reading · Commentary

Oh My Stars! – Rating Books on GoodReads

If you’re on GoodReads, you’ve probably used their star system to rate books. For some users, stars are a precursor to a review while others only give star ratings. I do both though I’m more apt to just grant a star rating unless I have strong opinions or praise I want to share about a particular book.

Currently, GoodReads lets users allot up to five whole stars (not half stars), which correspond to one of five descriptions:
Five stars = “It was amazing.”
Four stars = “Really liked it.”
Three stars = “Liked it.”
Two stars = “It was okay.”
One star = “Did not like it.”

Users also have the option of awarding no stars though there is no given description (e.g. zero stars = “really hated it”).

Granted, star ratings are just as subjective as readers’ thoughts on a book, and some readers’ thoughts don’t necessarily correspond with the generic descriptions GoodReads attaches to its stars. For some folks, three stars might be an honestly good read while others would consider a three-star read merely average.

Naturally, there are no “rules” for rating books, but it can be tempting to award a rating based on what other GoodReads users give. But always rate a book based on your feelings, regardless whether others agree. If you feel a low-rated book was actually good, then rate it high. If you disliked a book that is garnering high ratings, then share why you didn’t care for it. Some people don’t want to rock the proverbial boat by presenting unpopular opinions, but potential readers may want to know about an alternative view.

I read four and five star reviews, but I’ll also look for reviews accompanying low ratings because I’m curious to see if (a). anyone didn’t care for the book or harbored ambivalent feelings towards it or (b). there were issues that caused some readers to rate the book low. I might have some of the same issues, so seeing a low rating accompanied by a review explaining why might cause me to not bother checking out the book, thus saving me time and money.

So how do I award stars? Below are how I define the stars I give on GoodReads along with examples of books I’ve rated:

Five Stars = Loved it!
If I award a book five stars, that means I thoroughly enjoyed it and it rightfully belongs on my favorite reads shelf. I found no flaws in the story, its characters, tone, delivery, and themes. In short, this is a book I would highly recommend without thinking twice.

Examples of Five Star Reads: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy by Trenton Lee Stewart, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

Four Stars = Very good – but not quite five stars
I’m admittedly very stingy with my stars, so a four-star read for me can still be great – and usually is – but there was just that little something extra it was missing that kept it from being five stars. So in the words of Get Smart‘s Maxwell Smart, it’s a book that…

Examples of Four Star Reads: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer, Fish in a Tree by Linda Mullaly Hunt, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Three Stars = Solidly good, neither great nor terrible.
For me, three stars means solidly average. I reserve this rating for books that are genuinely good but more middle of the road than four-star reads. Hence, three star books are like a bowl of Corn Flakes – nothing dreadful but definitely not a favorite.

Examples of Three Star Reads: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman, and A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Two Stars = So-so/just okay.
Two star reads can go one of two ways with me – they can either be a fairly average read that just didn’t capture my attention or they were all-around so-so and borderline meh. Regarding the first category, there was probably nothing wrong with the story itself, but I either wasn’t investing interest or was not the intended audience. In the other category, there might be issues I had with the book and, as such, didn’t enjoy it but not enough to say I disliked it.

Examples of Two Star Reads: Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, New Moon by Stephenie Meyer, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and Emma by Jane Austen.

One Star = Not a book I would read again (provided I finished it)
If I rate a book one star, then it was something I didn’t enjoy at all, might not have finished, became bored by, or took too many issues with it. Maybe there was some slight or random redeeming factor, hence the single star, but everything else – plot, themes, characters, and/or content – were not my cup of tea and not anything I care to remember or revisit.

Examples of One Star Reads: Spindle Fire by Lexa Hillyer, A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, Gunslinger Girl by Lyndsay Ely, and The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

Zero stars = Not only would I never read this again, I can’t recommend it.
I don’t have too many books on my GoodReads shelf that were awarded no stars but there are a few. In these cases, I had so many issues with the book that I didn’t feel it deserved any stars. These are books I can honestly say I hated, whatever the reason, which can range from a dark, dreadful story; to explicit content; to complete disagreement with the author’s views.

Examples of Zero Star Reads: Hunted by Meagan Spooner (for feminist themes), Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (for a dark story with no redeeming value), I am Her Revenge by Meredith Moore (for violence against animals), and Get Married: What Women Can Do to Help it Happen by Candice Watters (for promoting legalism and age-shaming)

Commentary · Media

Musical Musings – Gorillaz

Aside from being a writer, I’m also an avid music listener. However, I’m just as picky about my music as I am with my books! I still buy CDs but only if they’re from a favorite artist, and my list of favorites is small (for now, it consists of only five: Blur, Paramore, Coldplay, Florence + the Machine, and the band I’m going to discuss at length below) though I download quite a bit of music from iTunes.

However, it seems to me like the quality of popular music is declining as it’s less concerned about creativity and more focused on cookie cutter arrangements and vocals. I’m not here to hate on pop music nor am I a crusty old soul who can’t stand what “the kids these days” are listening to. However, I will always gravitate towards musicians and bands who take the time to create art instead of just generating the next big thing.

Gorillaz is one such band.

Despite being entirely fictional. But I’ll get to that in a moment. 😉

Seeing as Gorillaz recently released their latest full-length project, The Now Now, the time is right to dish on my favorite band.

I was first introduced to Gorillaz unawares back in 2000. I was watching “BattleBots” on Comedy Central and saw an ad for what was their debut, self-titled album. The ad featured snippets from the music video for “Clint Eastwood,” but at the time, I had no idea what I was watching. I just thought it was a commercial for a new mature cartoon show until I realized it was for a CD. It was weird. It was dark. And I all but completely forgot about it.

Until 2005.

I was in college, listening to my car radio on the way home from classes, when I heard the most intriguing song I had heard in the longest time. In terms of my musical tastes up to that point, I mainly listened to music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s and contemporary Christian music. Throughout the 90s, I listened to Christian music almost exclusively because there was a lot to choose from genre-wise. Some of my favorite artists were dc Talk, Jars of Clay, Plumb, and the Newsboys. However, over the years, a lot of the artists I listened to either went on hiatus or ceased to do music altogether, so I felt like I was running out of new music to explore. As the 2000s approached, the wide range of Christian rock, alternative, pop, and rap that I enjoyed was slowly replaced by generic praise and worship songs that, while usually lyrically passable, lacked the sense of creativity and lyrical depth I was craving.

(I want to add that I don’t hate Christian music. I am a Christian myself and I still listen to artists I enjoyed back when I was a teen. Those songs spoke to me then and still speak to me today. So this isn’t a story about how I “graduated” from Christian music to “secular” music. I listen to and love music across a spectrum of musicians, genres, and time periods. I also believe that all truth is ultimately God’s truth, whether it’s sung by an openly Christian artist, an artist with no religious affiliation, or even a virtual band!)

Seeking more variety in my music, I turned to the radio. For years, I mainly listened to a local oldies station and a Christian station that eventually became just a talk show line up. But when I went to college and commuted, I decided to explore other stations. I first tried another local Christian station, but it was dominated by worship music that all sounded alike to me after a while. So I switched to a local pop station and discovered the likes of Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton, Pink, Linkin Park, Lenny Kravitz, Evanescence, and Avril Lavigne. While I won’t say everything they put out was/is good, some of their songs were interesting and, at the very least, catchy. I also discovered Coldplay and instantly fell in love their sound and lyrics, and I’m a big fan to this day.

But there was one band that stood head and shoulders above the rest.

So in the fall of 2005, I heard a song that was unlike anything else on the radio. My local pop station played a wide variety of genres at the time (as opposed to the pre-fab pop and rap they spin now), but even then this track stood out. The music was truly undefined as it bore hallmarks of pop, alternative, hip-hop/rap, and electronic. It was a cool fusion of styles that blended harmoniously and made it distinctive. Similarly, the song had interesting lyrics that allowed the listener to derive their own meaning from the curious word play and pictures:

Windmill, windmill for the land.

Turn forever hand in hand
Take it all in on your stride
It is sinking, falling down
Love forever, love is free
Let’s turn forever, you and me
Windmill, windmill for the land
Is everybody in?

I kept listening, hoping to find out who the artist was. Finally, at the end of the song, the DJ announced, “That was ‘Feel Good Inc.’ by Gorillaz.”

Gorillaz. The name sounded familiar but at the time I couldn’t place it. All I knew was I had to look this group up and check out more of their music.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was the same band I had seen the commercial for years ago. But now I was intrigued. I snatched up their newest album at the time, Demon Days, and listened to it from beginning to end without stopping. I felt like I was immersed in a musical experience as opposed to just listening to a batch of songs. The album was like a novel put to music where each song was a chapter and told a story. It quickly became a favorite and much-played album of mine and still is to this day.

Naturally, I went on the hunt to obtain the rest of the Gorillaz discography as well as learn more about this strange little band, which technically is a virtual band (read: animated) consisting of vocalist 2D, lead guitarist Noodle, drummer Russel Hobbs, and bass guitarist Murdoc Niccals. But while these characters don’t exist in real life, the musicians and collaborators behind them are real.

Gorillaz is the brainchild of Blur front man Damon Albarn and “Tank Girl” comic creator Jamie Hewlett. These two masterminds started work on their virtual creation back in 1998 and did so partly to poke fun at the state of pop music. It’s no surprise that I’m also a huge Blur fan and I own all of their major albums and then some. I don’t agree with Albarn on his political views, but I admire him as a consummate performer, musician, and songwriter. Just as Blur doesn’t offer mindless fluffy pop songs but presents meat on their musical bones, so Gorillaz delivers the same through a myriad of genres. Gorillaz maintains a mixture of dark humor and dingy tones buried beneath a cheeky exterior, and this style can be evidenced not only in their music and lyrics but also in their videos.

I delved into the band’s history, both the real-life background of their creation and the biographies of the various members (and I’m a proud owner of their fictional autobiography, Rise of the Ogre). I found it all to be a fascinating musical and cultural experiment that has obviously proven successful. The basic premise of Gorillaz is that it ridicules how music is fabricated while, in turn, serving as the ultimate fabrication. Many musical acts seem pre-packaged, ready to consume without much thought. Gorillaz takes this one step further by being entirely concocted yet offering thought-provoking lyrics that encourage analysis.

It’s not too hard to determine that the Gorillaz themselves (the virtual band members, that is) are intended to be caricatures. Murdoc is the egotistical, narcissistic, womanizing rock god; Noodle is the child prodigy; Russel is the low-key, tormented old soul; and 2D is the pretty boy talented singer with a tragic past. I imagine it would have been tempting to make these characters cartoony and kid-friendly. Instead, each one has an elaborately bizarre backstory, making them unique and decidedly mature.

Out of the line up, I like Murdoc the best because he’s the epitome of the ultimate rock star/god in caricature form. He’s christened himself the leader of Gorillaz (as he, technically, is the founder). He believes he’s the most talented musician of the lot despite only playing the bass. He’s touted that he’s a better singer than 2D (Murdoc is tone deaf at least when it comes to singing). He’s a megalomaniac Svengali (so it makes sense that he’s a Satanist) with a razor sharp wit. And he firmly believes he’s desirable to all women despite being less than handsome. Thus, Murdoc represents everything the general public believes about alpha male rock musicians though he is grossly exaggerated for comedic effect, the humor being that despite his grand claims, it’s obvious that Murdoc is no where near being as marvelous as he makes himself sound.

For the record, while Gorillaz doesn’t create offensive music, their image is steeped in dark humor and some of their songs tout a profanity here and there and can touch on saturnine themes, from drug abuse (“Sleeping Powder”), to violence in popular media (“Kids with Guns”), to loneliness (“El Manana” and “On Melancholy Hill”), to even imperialism as a metaphor (“Fire Coming Out of a Monkey’s Head”). Hence, there is more to their songs than meets the ear, which is something I deeply appreciate. Gorillaz’s music is adult but not dirty, poetic but not pretentious, introspective but not mopey or depressing. Nearly every song gives the listener something to consider or imagine, and I love music you have to think about as opposed to earworm-inducing tunes. It’s obvious Albarn and the other Gorillaz song writers take time to make musical art when it comes to Gorillaz.

Jamie Hewlett, too, obviously cares enough about these characters to not present boiler plate animated figures. Much like their sound, Gorillaz retains a mature, darkly comical look rather than be a cast of bright, shiny, colorful cartoons. Hewlett doesn’t try to realistically capture his characters or their surroundings but that’s okay. His renderings mirror the underlying irony of Gorillaz – these characters live in a world that’s not as pretty as it seems despite the seemingly colorful, superficial charm.

Another facet that makes Gorillaz unique is the level of interactivity fans have with the band through various media platforms. Their website (when it showcased the now defunct Kong Studios) was fully interactive, allowing fans to navigate the studio level by level, room by room, complete with videos to watch, tracks to listen to, games to play, and a plethora of strange sights to explore, from the murky kitchen to Murdoc’s crusty Winnebago. The website even earned a Webby Award for its design and interactive content that perfectly represented and encapsulated the Gorillaz brand. Likewise, the band members all have social media accounts (the most “vocal” of whom is – no surprise – Murdoc, who has an active Twitter account). All of this adds to the sense of realism the band’s creators strive to generate around their characters.

Likewise, each major album marks a new “phase” for the band, and, as such, the band’s members change just like real people. Each of the Gorillaz’s members has a birthday and are allowed to age accordingly. At the time of the debut album’s release, 2D was 23 years old, Murdoc was 35, Noodle was 11, and Russel was 26. While their principal designs don’t change much, they’re drawn to reflect their chronological age as time goes on as you can see below through the different phases’ artwork:

Phrase One: Gorillaz (2001)

Phase Two: Demon Days (2005)

Phase Three: Plastic Beach (2010)

Phase Four: Humanz (2017)

Phase Five: The Now Now (2018)

(*Note: Murdoc is noticeably absent from the band’s line up here as, according to the character’s current backstory, he’s serving time in prison. In his place as bassist is Ace, a character borrowed from The Powerpuff Girls.)

Therefore, if you do the math, the band members have aged about 17 years: 2D is now 40 years old, Murdoc is 52, Noodle is 28, and Russel is 43. This adds a layer of attention and creativity that shows that Albarn, Hewlett, and Co. care about making not only good music and visuals but also compelling characters and stories. It would have been easy to create stock characters and give them unchanging designs and a simple backstory. But rather than keep the members of Gorillaz static or condensed, the band’s creators let them age, evolve, adopt their own senses of style, and make their own choices so they seem like real people.

My musical musings wouldn’t be complete without ranking Gorillaz’s major albums and compilations. So here they are below:

8. Laika Comes Home (2002) – This is a rare album and I was shocked I found it at my small local music store. While not my favorite (I’ve only ever listened to this once), it is an interesting musical experiment where the entire Gorillaz debut album is remixed and re-imagined as reggae tracks.

7. The Fall
(2010) – Again, this one isn’t a favorite, but I respect its composition process as it was recorded entirely on an iPad app. There are no vocal tracks (otherwise it would have ranked higher), but it’s still a fun listening experience.

6. G Sides (2002) and D-Sides (2007)
– I decided to combine these two compilation albums. Noteworthy tracks and remixes include “19-2000 (Soulchild Remix)” and “Faust” (from G-Sides) and “Dirty Harry (Schtung Chinese New Year Remix)” (“Dirty Harry” sung entirely in Chinese!), “People” (which eventually became “Dare”), and “68 State” (from D-Sides).

5. Gorillaz (2001)
– Their debut album is chocked full of memorable tracks that present a good range of the styles the band has tackled, from alternative, to pop, to hip hop, to electronic. Standout tracks include “Clint Eastwood,” “19-2000,” and “Tomorrow Comes Today.”

4. Humanz (2017)
– This album is a bit darker in tone (redolent of the Demon Days era only with less cheekiness at times) when compared to its predecessor, Plastic Beach, as well as its bubbly follow up, The Now Now. Not to mention it’s filled to the brim with collaborators, which exemplifies Gorillaz’s noteworthy genre fluidity. Standout tracks include the eerie lead single “Saturn Barz,” the infectiously catchy “Strobelight,” and the somber “Busted and Blue.”

3. The Now Now (2018) – Gorillaz’s latest full-length album is a brighter, more upbeat and scaled back (in terms of collaborations) offering than Humanz. Similarly, this album serves as more of a collection of songs rather than possessing an overall concept, thus serving as a fun call-back to their debut album in this regard. Standout tracks would be “Humility,” “Tranz,” “Sorcererz,” and “Idaho.”

2. Plastic Beach (2010)
– This album retained the album-as-story vibe akin to Demon Days as it’s more of a concept album than a collection of songs. Its prevailing themes are isolation and conservation of one’s external and internal environment, and most of the songs approach these topics in a variety of ways, from somber introspectivity (“On Melancholy Hill”) to cheeky sarcasm (“Superfast Jellyfish”). Standout tracks include “Rhinestone Eyes,” “Stylo,” “Empire Ants,” “On Melancholy Hill,” and “Broken.”

1. Demon Days (2005) – This remains my all-time favorite album and has yet to be unseated. This album, much like Plastic Beach, is a concept album rather than a random mix of songs. Here, the overall themes are change, loneliness, and isolation that ultimately end on a positive note. Much like trying to navigate through a dense fog, the final track, “Demon Days,” brings you into the light of day as it encourages listeners to Pick yourself up/it’s a brand new day/so turn yourself ’round…into the sun. Hence, the album comes full circle, opening with the morose “Last Living Souls” that wonders if there’s any hope left for mankind and ends on an uplifting note. It’s a musical masterpiece and I love it! Standout tracks certainly include “Feel Good Inc.,” “Dare,” “El Manana,” “Every Planet We Reach is Dead,” “Demon Days,” “November Has Come,” and “Dirty Harry.”

In closing, it’s rare for me to become a fan of really anything, from movies to television and books to music. But when it comes to Gorillaz, I make it a point to buy every album, download every remix and single, watch every video, and check out any related media. So, yes, it’s safe to call me a die-hard fan and I won’t mind a bit! 😀 But their music and level of artistry – even if it is all done behind the scenes by real-life artists and musicians – certainly deserves the attention

So if you’re starving for some music that’s more than just catchy hooks and mindless lyrics, then give Gorillaz a try. There’s something for everyone and you just might find yourself a new favorite band, too.

It’s just a shame Gorillaz don’t exist as real people.

Though if they actually did exist, they’d be some very strange folks indeed!


Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “Roar”

The Story: [from GoodReads:]
In a land ruled and shaped by violent magical storms, power lies with those who control them. Aurora Pavan comes from one of the oldest Stormling families in existence. Long ago, the ungifted pledged fealty and service to her family in exchange for safe haven, and a kingdom was carved out from the wildlands and sustained by magic capable of repelling the world’s deadliest foes. As the sole heir of Pavan, Aurora’s been groomed to be the perfect queen. She’s intelligent and brave and honorable. But she’s yet to show any trace of the magic she’ll need to protect her people.

To keep her secret and save her crown, Aurora’s mother arranges for her to marry a dark and brooding Stormling prince from another kingdom. At first, the prince seems like the perfect solution to all her problems. He’ll guarantee her spot as the next queen and be the champion her people need to remain safe. But the more secrets Aurora uncovers about him, the more a future with him frightens her. When she dons a disguise and sneaks out of the palace one night to spy on him, she stumbles upon a black market dealing in the very thing she lacks—storm magic. And the people selling it? They’re not Stormlings. They’re storm hunters.

Legend says that her ancestors first gained their magic by facing a storm and stealing part of its essence. And when a handsome young storm hunter reveals he was born without magic, but possesses it now, Aurora realizes there’s a third option for her future besides ruin or marriage. She might not have magic now, but she can steal it if she’s brave enough.

My Take: Often, I can make up my mind about a new book right after finishing it. But in some cases, it takes a second read for me to decide whether or not a book is worth keeping on my shelves or not. Roar, a YA fantasy, is one such book; and unfortunately, the second go-around for me revealed some very stormy areas in this meteorological magic-based story.

But to start, I think the cover is stunning! In fact, I was drawn to this book thanks to its cover, and it’s one of these covers that looks better in person. It has three dimensional elements to it so the title stands out, which is a nice touch. Also, though you can’t see it here, the art is actually a panorama that wraps around the entire dust jacket so it’s a continuing scene rather than a solitary snapshot. Likewise, I love the organic color combination of pink, purple, green, grey, and white, and I think this works to establish the story’s overall tone and setting, which is chiefly outdoors. So, all, in all, I give major props to the art department!

Concerning the story itself, Roar focuses on the titular Roar (aka Aurora, aka Rora) who, in keeping with typical YA fantasy court intrigue tradition, is a princess who, despite coming from a magically-gifted family, lacks any magical talents herself. (So in Harry Potter terms, we’d call Roar a Squib.) Roar’s mother, the queen, has done her best to hide this fact from the public eye as the populace looks to the royal family to protect the kingdom when dangerous, magically-infused weather strikes. Roar’s only hope of preserving her people is to marry a magically gifted Stormling prince, the sinister Cassius, who fulfills the obligatory “bad boy” trope.

Naturally, Roar doesn’t want to marry him (though once we get to know Cassius, who could blame her?), so she runs away. She eventually comes into the company of a group of storm hunters who steal the magical “hearts” of storms. The leader of this band of rebels is Locke, who fulfills the third corner of the obligatory “love” triangle. For most of the story, Roar aligns herself with Locke and his magical rebels as all sorts of magical dangers and court politics ensue.

Please stop me if you’ve heard all of this before…

Seriously, I won’t be offended.

As you might have deduced, Roar is a run-of-the-mill YA court intrigue story complete with a love triangle, drama, and magic. In short, if you remove the magic system, which is the story’s only interesting element, you get the usual recipe that has dominated the YA fantasy market for years. (Though I would categorize this as more New Adult than Young Adult for reasons I’ll get into later on.) Thus, the general plot, when divorced from its magical element, was very ho-hum for me.

That being said, I didn’t dislike everything about the plot as it has some good action scenes, especially when characters confront storms, and the magic system is fairly innovative. Here, magic is weather-centered as characters can master, conquer, and (in a sense) kill meteorological phenomena, from dust storms to raging tempests. While we’re not told exactly how these storms obtained their magic, we do learn that each one is driven by a magical center, a heart, that can be removed and reused as a magical talisman or retained as a trophy. While weather-based magic is nothing new (Maria V. Snyder’s Glass trilogy, which borrows elements of meteorological magic, comes to mind), I still think it’s a fun literary device.

It was the magic system that ultimately saved this book for me (as I awarded it one star on GoodReads), but it was not enough to conceal the problems I had with the story. Aside from its color-by-number plot and characters, Roar not only suffers from trite love triangle-itis but also presents its two “romantic” male leads as less than honorable gentlemen. This “love” triangle (that’s more like a lust triangle) involves Roar and two male suitors, the dark and mysterious Cassius and the not-as-dark yet still mysterious Locke. I’m not a fan of love triangles in general on the principle that they have been overused and seem to be a writer’s default way of inserting dramatic tension into a story. Though I think some love triangles do work, especially when they’re not the crux of the plot, the triangle here does not thanks to its components.

Roar is the typical beautiful swan character caught in the middle of two would-be suitors and who doesn’t seem to know what she wants out of a relationship. On one side is Cassius who sees Roar as a trophy for him to claim and conquer, and on the other side is Locke, an ultra-alpha male. Rather than present the reader – and Roar – with two equally worthy male love interests, the novel instead offers up two questionable choices.

From the start, Cassius is depicted as a villain and views Roar as a challenge to be won, not a woman to cherish. His actions are dictated by a possessive nature and he displays a clear lack of respect for Roar’s boundaries, reading her refusals and her anger as turn-ons rather than signals that he’s overstepping his bounds. One such scene in which Roar and Cassius throw knives at each other (in a moment redolent of a similar scene between Tris and Four/Tobias in Divergent) puts Cassius’ callousness on display when he seems to take great pride in sticking a knife straight into Roar’s arm. To its credit, the novel rightfully treats Cassius’ actions as manipulative and doesn’t have Roar fall for his charms.

However, what the novel initially declares as unhealthy and possessive is later depicted as romantic and swoon-worthy when Locke comes on the scene. Locke is a cliched alpha male, which isn’t an immediate negative as he does make for a good leader and rallying point for his fellow storm hunters. However, his actions towards and perceptions of Roar mirror Cassius’ behaviors and thoughts yet the novel never calls these out. Rather than view Roar as a woman worth getting to know and cherishing, Locke seeks to possess her because he finds her mesmerizing. However, there is a fine line between being intrigued by someone and wanting to get to know them better as a person and being drawn to someone and obsessing over them. Obsession isn’t synonymous with love and, much like unwanted weeds in a flourishing flower garden, has no place in a healthy romance.

To add to Locke’s unlikable factor, he, more than once, recalls how Roar reminds him of his deceased sister, and the same traits he saw in his sister he also sees in Roar, which further fuels his obsessed lustful attraction.

So let me get this straight – we have a guy who is lusting/obsessing after a woman, with whom he is eventually physical with, who reminds him of his dead sister.

Um, yeah. Nothing weird about that at all (insert sarcasm here).

As expected, Locke and Roar eventually become physical; however, during some of these scenes, Locke becomes rough and manhandles Roar. Yet rather than shove him away, Roar either enjoys being treated as such or just resigns herself to being roughhoused under the guise of “intimacy.” I’m sorry, but any intimate act, from a hug to anything else, that involves manhandling or even the implication that one party is struggling or fighting against the other is NOT an act of genuine affection! But rather than paint Locke’s actions as abusive, the novel glosses over them, covertly declaring them “romantic.”

I know this topic has consumed the bulk of this review, but it’s a major issue in the novel that deserves to not be dismissed. A couple of things concern me about the depiction of abusive relationships as healthy, normal, and romantic. The first of which is that Roar is marketed as a YA novel; however, this is closer to a new adult or an adult novel (ages 18+) than a book for teenagers (ages 13-17). Roar is no more a YA novel than Watchmen is a suitable picture book for preschoolers. While Roar is devoid of excessive language and violence, its sensuality factor and depiction of questionable relationship dynamics make this a poor pick for teens.

I also believe Roar is riding on the coattails of the abusive-relationships-are-romantic trend that was kick-started by the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy (which I’ve never read nor would I though I’m familiar with its basic premise). This is a dangerous message to present to female readers, teens especially but also to women of any age. While Roar manages to keep its fantasy focus, its central “romantic” thread presents unhealthy dynamics where lust is elevated over love, possession is preferred over gentle protection, and obsession is prized over mutual attraction.

Language – Minimal; any language used is few and far between and primarily consists of PG-level words.

Violence – Violence is chiefly contained in the fantasy violence lane where characters track down storms and harvest their magical hearts. Storms are also shown to be destructive forces that can turn lethal, but they can have their magical powers harnessed for either good (as a means of protecting others) or bad (as a weapon). Some characters employ traditional weapons, such as blades, at times, but there are no instances of gory, graphic violence other than passing mentions of bleeding wounds.

Sexual Content – The chemistry between Roar and Cassius and Roar and Locke simmers with sensuality that scantily avoids any outright sex scenes. Cassius views Roar as more of a possession than a person and makes vague mental comments about her body and their pending wedding night (which never happens as the two don’t wed). Locke also treats Roar in a possessive manner and the two are often physical. One scene near the novel’s end barely avoids being a sex scene as Locke and Roar caress and make bodily contact while clothed. (This scene, along with others, depicts Locke’s actions as controlling yet also somehow “romantic” as Roar succumbs to his rough advances.) Finally, it’s worth noting that author Cora Carmack chiefly pens adult/erotic romances, and while there is nothing here quite at that level, this supposedly YA novel is decidedly not for teens.

The Run-Down:

Overall, Roar has only one redeeming value – its magic. When the novel spends its time and attention on the various storm hunter characters and their meteorological magical arts, it’s entertaining and creative. However, when this is subtracted from the equation, all readers are left with is a by-the-numbers YA fantasy riddled with tropes and cliches. In and of itself, this doesn’t make the book terrible but it does make it predictable and bland. However, when the story delves in Roar’s sundry “romantic” relationships, it depicts some highly questionable dynamics that, in real-world settings, would be unhealthy at best and abusive at worst.

book tags · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

2018 Mid-Year Reading Recap

Just to note, I’ll be discussing books I’ve read this year in general, so I’m not limiting my choices to books that were released in 2018 as some were not. So let’s get started! 🙂

1. Best book you’ve read in 2018 so far.

Silver on the Road
by Laura Anne Gillman
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book (that I’ve never read before) that really engrossed me. Thankfully, Silver on the Road is one such book. It hooked me from the first page and didn’t let go. It does a masterful job of creating a unique world while utilizing facets of the American West. Mix in an engaging male-female mentor-apprentice relationship (that never turns romantic or creepy) and some innovative, refreshingly non-flashy magic, and this book lives up to reviewers’ claims of it being a “weird West” tale. Simply put, I loved every page and I look forward to the rest of the trilogy.

2. Worst book you’ve read in 2018 so far.

Spindle Fire
by Lexa Hillyer
I’m officially done with YA fantasy unless any new books promise something genuinely innovative or intriguing. Otherwise, I’ve taken the genre off my reading radar. In any case, Spindle Fire is yet another run-of-the-mill YA court intrigue novel complete with paint-by-number plotting and characters. Not to mention it tried way too hard to evoke character sympathy by emphasizing the main characters’ “disabilities,” which, while I’m sure was unintentional, seemed in poor taste and quickly got on my nerves. Overall, it was one of the least interesting books I’ve read in a long time and was simply a bore to read.

3. Best sequel you’ve read in 2018 so far.

Gone Rogue: Wires and Nerve, Volume 2
by Marissa Meyer
This sequel picks up right where Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 left off and wraps up all of the characters’ story arcs masterfully. While I thought some portions near the end dragged a tiny bit, it wasn’t a deal breaker and ultimately this entry was just as enjoyable as its predecessor. The downside? We only get two Lunar Chronicles graphic novels! 😦  I would have enjoyed a few more, but, alas, two is all we get. In the words of SpongeBob SquarePants, Tarter sauce!

4. Worst sequel you’ve read in 2018 so far.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne
To be fair, I don’t think Cursed Child is the worst sequel or the worst all-around book I’ve read thus far, but it’s certainly one of the weaker entries. I’ve already expressed my in-depth thoughts about this play, which you can read here. In brief, while I appreciate some liberties this story takes and some of the themes it touches on, it’s essentially glorified fan fiction that the world didn’t need. Oh, and that little revelation about Lord Voldemort? No. Just no.

5. Most anticipated release for the second half of 2018.

Thrawn: Alliances
by Timothy Zahn
I’ve had my copy pre-ordered for a while now and I’m so excited to read this follow up to 2017’s Thrawn, which focuses on the titular Grand Admiral himself. I trust it will be nothing short of awesome! 🙂

6. Biggest disappointment of 2018 so far.

Gunslinger Girl
by Lyndsay Ely
Judging by this book’s blurb and cover, I was expecting a fun, exciting romp through a re-imagined Wild West. Sadly, this is another run-of-the-mill, fill-in-the-blanks, socially progressive YA novel. I’ll give it props for at least trying to create an interesting setting, but everything else fell flat for me as the pacing was slow, characters’ actions were predictable, and there was nothing truly engaging about this corporation-ran dystopia that wears its socio-political views on its sleeve (i.e. big companies, leaders of big companies, Christianity, and White men = evil). Oddly enough, I’ve read two Western-themed speculative books so far this year, and Silver On the Road surpasses this not-so-subtle social justice warrior novel by several big country miles!

7. Best surprise read of 2018 so far.

The Music Shop
by Rachel Joyce
This was one of those rare books where I finished it in a single sitting because I couldn’t put it down. It has a rather basic premise – a lonely man with emotional baggage runs an old school music shop that only sells vinyl. At first, I feared this might be too character-focused and lack enough action to carry the plot along. However, much to my surprise, the plot is carried fairly well thanks to its characters’ growth on the page. This isn’t a flashy book full of jaw-dropping moments, but that’s perfectly fine. It’s a simple, pleasant, engaging, feel-good read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t doubt it will earn a spot in my top favorite reads of 2018. 🙂

8. Worst book cover of this year so far.

The Silver Music Box
by Mina Baites
I wouldn’t call this cover horrible but it’s perplexing and safe. For starters, the novel (which I ended up marking as DNF) is about a music box keepsake that gets passed down in a Jewish family. For this heirloom to play such a big role in the story as both a prop and a motif, it has no attention called to it here. Secondly, the cover’s shading is so dark, it’s difficult to make out the figures (and the boy is the only figure who has a face and it’s a partial glimpse at best). For such a title as The Silver Music Box, nothing here evokes anything about music. (Even the cover for The Music Store has an image of a record in the background and a character-specific central image). In short, this is a rather bland, unattractive cover that doesn’t seem to tie in with its story.

9. Best book cover of this year so far.

by Anne Ursu
This was one of the first books I read in 2018 and I think the cover is gorgeous, from its colors to its use of lighting. I love how the corners seem to blur and the trails of flying snowflakes swirl inward so your eye is drawn to the central image and the vibrant horizon just past the inky trees. It does a good job incorporating elements from the novel as well as present an accurate impression to readers of what to expect from the story – it’s youthful but mature, it has adventure but also danger lurking about, and it touches on some emotionally frigid subjects but it’s not entirely dark and cold. Overall, this is a lovely cover that makes the most of its tasteful and simplistic delivery and design, and it represents its story well.

10. Fictional crush of 2018.

Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find: The Original Screenplay by J.K. Rowling
I’ve yet to see the film but I did peruse the screenplay and found it to be a fun adventure. But every time I envisioned Newt while reading, I immediately pictured him as Eddie Redmayne. Not exactly a bad mental image to have. 😉

Book Memes · Commentary · Writing Insight

Dealing with Writer’s Block

This week, let’s discuss the dreaded WB – writer’s block!

Most writers are often posed the question of what do they do to manage or defeat writer’s block. It’s a fair question because all writers, from professionally published to persons who pen works just for themselves, have faced writer’s block in some form or another and for various stretches of time. Some bouts of writer’s block are mercifully brief while others seem to persist for a while. To be fair, there is no one right method of overcoming writer’s block nor do I believe it’s entirely unavoidable. (Thus, if anyone ever tells me, “I never get writer’s block,” I tend to disbelieve them.)

For myself, here is what I do to help keep myself afloat when I feel my writing gears winding down.

Primarily, I try to have multiple projects going simultaneously, usually one editing project and one drafting project if possible. At other times, I may be revising a draft manuscript’s skeleton by crafting a new outline or character bios or backstories before diving back in and making edits to the story itself. And I might be doing this while writing new material or perusing an old draft and making revision comments/notes. Occasionally, I will switch and work on older things that I want to do something with while letting newer manuscripts sit a while to get my mind off of them. By changing what I work on, sometimes daily, it keeps me from getting too mentally drained. Granted, all writers have off days where it seems like nothing comes. But by having various projects to go between, I’ve found myself stuck in those creative dry spells for shorter periods of time.

To make a comparison, it’s a bit like working a crossword puzzle or a word find. Some clues come to you quickly while others stump you to no end. Some words you can locate in a matter of seconds while others remain seemingly hidden. However, many times if you sit the puzzle aside for a day and go back to it, those clues don’t stump you or you can find those previously elusive words. In either case, there’s something about sitting a project you’re working on aside for a spell and returning to it at a later time that seems to reboot your thought process. It’s as if you can view it again with fresh eyes.

The same holds true when writing. My typical process goes like this: I’ll get an idea; draft an outline, notes, character backgrounds, etc.; generate a rough draft; sit the draft aside for a little while; go back and read through and make comments on the rough draft; sit those comments and the draft aside for about a month; then go back and start making revisions or additions. Again, this is my process – it’s what works best for me and it’s what I’m comfortable with, so this isn’t meant to be a guide or standard to follow. For myself, it helps to sit a draft aside for a while (at least a month or so) before returning to it.

Doing so helps me spot troubles in the plot, continuity errors, sections that don’t belong or move the story along, weaknesses in character background that need fixing, and run-of-the-mill errors. Similarly, I feel like I can read a draft with fresh eyes, forgetting the details of the story after taking a short hiatus, and seeing what works and what doesn’t or what needs improvement and why. On the flip side, I believe if you constantly read and revise the same material over and over with no break from it, you start to belabor your own work and it can suffer from it. Your writing can benefit from stepping back and stepping away from it for a while, however long you need to take.

Again, this is my method, so while it works for me, it might not be a good fit for you. So this is one of many ways to help combat writer’s block, not only while writing but also while editing and revising. Remember, sometimes the best thing you can do for a story is to leave it alone, putting it on the proverbial shelf and returning to it at a later time. Doing so helps clean your mental slate until you feel ready to tackle the project with a renewed energy later on.

So that was today’s Tell Me Something Tuesday! Hopefully, you’ve found it helpful. Until next time, happy writing! 🙂