We have compiled our summer 2020 book reviews here though I’ve been posting my reading list real-time to the Conquer Books Facebook group, so if you’re active on there, you may have seen a few of these mini reviews. It’s a mix of brand new and recently award-winning stuff (and a few things I read to my kids).
I wanted to put all my summer reading in one place and you may find some of the mini-reviews helpful if a search engine sent you here for one of the titles.
June 2020 Reading
This is How You Lose the Time War
by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Yes, it’s a novella.
The story follows agents Red and Blue as they travel through time, changing history in alternate universes. Both agents are cunning, dangerous, and spend lifetimes working to sabotage the other. Then, curious, they begin communicating in secret letters.
Those letters make up the book and get this…el-Mohtar and Gladstone actually wrote letters one at a time to each other.
It’s a neat premise all and all and a quick read. I wish the settings were more concrete–sometimes you just get a blip of them–but, alas, it’s a novella. It reminded me a lot of The Vanished Birds which Nicole and I reviewed just a few months ago, so if you liked This is How You Lose the Time War, you might want to check out The Vanished Birds too for more romantic, edgy time travel fun.
By Alma Katsu
If you like your historical novels dark and ghastly, check out The Deep by Alma Katsu.
Synopsis: Annie Hebbley comes aboard the legendary Titanic as a maid. She’s quickly introduced to lavish lifestyles beyond belief, but not all is well on the ill-fated ship. Concerning events lead Annie and others on the ship to believe a nefarious spirit is at work. Then, the Titanic sinks and hundreds die.
Years later, Annie joins the Britannic as a nurse during WWI. When she spots a former passenger of the Titanic, Annie is forced to question what really happened the night the ship sank and whether something haunts her even now.
I was very much excited to read The Deep because I enjoyed The Hunger by Katsu, and it had a great combination of historical and spooky. In The Deep, I learned so much about the inner-workings of life on board the Titanic, but also got the ghost story I was after.
By Lindsay Ellis
Author Lindsay Ellis is known for her popular channel on YouTube that some of you, and consequently now us, watch. Axiom’s End is her debut novel.
This is a First Contact book set in the golden age of 2007. Cora just wants to live her life, but her coworkers, the press, the FBI (maybe the CIA?) want to know all about her whistle blower father. Cora may be able to put up a wall between her and her controversial parent, but walls are good for nothing when meteorites crash down upon her city and what she’s pretty sure is an alien turns up in her living room. Suddenly, Cora doesn’t know who to trust and more importantly, what to believe.
I really enjoyed this novel and did a video review of Axiom’s End here.
July 2020 Reading
The Poppy War
By R. F. Kuang
Rin, a war orphan with few future prospects, aces an Empire-wide test and gains access to an elite military school. She is shunned as an outsider, but through her studies, Rin uncovers the lethal powers of shamanism.
The Poppy War has been on my reading list for some time. I finally remembered to request it at the library and was excited to dive into the Chinese-inspired fantasy setting.
I didn’t finish it. I allow myself to set aside books I just don’t jive with and this was one. I was surprised; I really expected to like it and have heard such good things.
The pacing of the story is fast and though the protagonist is a teen, it tries to deal with a lot of important issues like sexism, poverty, and racism. There’s some cool fight scenes and it presents a unique take on fantasy.
However, I didn’t connect with any of the characters. As a reader I felt distant from Rin and the wide cast of secondary characters. Also, the book starts off as a coming of age story and then turns much darker. I’m not against violence in my literature, and it’s to be expected in a war story, but much of what I read felt contrived.
Still, if you enjoyed The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, you might want to try The Poppy War. There are a lot of parallels between the two novels including the education system Rin finds herself within, her mentor, and the moral questions that arise during battle and war.
By Cadwell Turnbull
Aliens come and their ship settles over the Virgin Islands. The Ynna say they have come for research, and provide Earth with medicine and renewable energy sources in exchange for a peaceful stay. When various islanders insult or attack the Ynna, the Ynna quickly and mercilessly act to teach the lesson: that any act of aggression with be met with their full wrath.
The Lesson is Cadwell Turnbull’s debut novel, but he’s well known on the short story circuit. He has an MFA in creative writing.
I really enjoyed reading this because it took a different stance on alien invasion. It was very realistic–imagine if aliens really did come. Maybe they would come for research and make an attempt at keeping the peace but the cultural differences would just make it impossible.
It’s a short read but not only did it tell a good story, it shared a lot about the history of the Virgin Islands, which I didn’t previously know. Most of the native Arawak and Carib peoples perished when colonial powers brought enslavement and disease. Then, colonists brought slaves from Africa to run plantations and today many of the people on the island are descendants of these slaves.
Turnbull combines this real setting with a fictional alien arrival to pose many questions about colonization and communication between peoples. The Lesson is one of those books that inspires discussion and thought for a long time afterwards.
You can attend a talk by Turnbull next month! I’m on the board of the Fox Cities Book Festival, and we are hosting Turnbull virtually on October 17, 2020.
How to Write a Book Proposal
Get a Literary Agent
If you’re a writer, I highly suggest these two books, but only if you’re at certain points in your writing journey.
I’m writing a nonfiction book proposal and How to Write a Book Proposal came in super handy. I’ve read a lot of books on writing and the publishing industry, but this is one of the very best. I’ve read everything I can about book proposals, and nothing compares to this. The information is great, the writing is personable, and it makes breaking into the industry sound possible.
Get A Literary Agent is another useful one for those who are querying books in the traditional route. Chuck Sambuchino has a number of useful books out and, like the rest, this book breaks down the process and includes plenty of tips from industry professionals.
If you find yourself writing a nonfiction book proposal or querying–or know someone who is–these two books will make things a whole lot easier.
August 2020 Reading
By Max Brooks
Kate and her husband move to Greenloop, a tiny green utopia in the wilderness of Washington. The houses are smart. The neighbors are cultured. Drones deliver weekly groceries and hummingbirds and deer dart through the surrounding forest. When Mount Rainier erupts and the community is knocked off the grid, Kate assumes someone will come to rescue them. Then, something disrupted by the natural disaster begins stalking Greenloop and Kate and the others must quickly set aside their peaceful ways in favor of pure survival.
Okay, obvious spoiler: the thing lurking in the forest is Bigfoot. If you like Sasquatch tales or wilderness survival stories, you should give this book a try. The pacing is great, the characters are compelling, and it speaks to the nature vs. civilization, solitude vs. community, technology vs. practical skill debates we all have from time to time.
If Max Brooks sounds familiar, that’s because he wrote World War Z. I suggest you dive into this one too.
by Tochi Onyebuchi
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi is a science fiction novella that you can read in one sitting.
Ella has a Thing, a piece of her that grows in power as she gets older. She can read memories and fates off a person and manipulate the world around her. Rather than basking in power, Ella is always at risk to the violence that permeates her world. Ella and her brother Kev try to protect each other as children, but they grow apart as Ella’s powers make her dangerous to be around. Kev’s own journey is shaped by racism, to the point that his path seems predetermined. Kev is sent to prison and Ella must watch as he gets further and further from who he is. But the real thing about Ella is, she won’t watch helpless.
This book is a good, short read. Rather than reveling in the details of plot and setting, this book infuses you with Ella’s emotions and moving family history. Author Onyebuchi’s writing has appeared in Lightspeed, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and Tor.com, and he holds numerous advanced degrees so you can expect whip smart writing.
By Veronica Roth
Fifteen years ago, five teenagers took on the Dark One, the bane of humanity that leveled cities and took lives. The Dark One was all powerful. The teenagers? Totally ordinary but Chosen Ones nonetheless. Working together, they brought down the Dark One and slowly life returned to normal. The teenagers grew up, remained famous, and struggled with PTSD. Some laid low, some built their brand. All fight against the holes left in their lives by the Dark One. Then, when one of the Chosen Ones die ten years after the defeat, the Chosen Ones question what they really saved and what’s still at stake.
I was a little divided on reading this because this is author Veronica Roth’s (of Divergent fame) first novel for adults. I read an extremely small amount of YA, and I was nervous this would read like YA with older characters. However, I was really intrigued to see what Roth would do with the Chosen One trope. So, I read.
(Mild spoilers ahead)
I think from the synopsis and, you know, how stories generally work in our culture, we know that the Dark One isn’t REALLY dead. At least dead in the traditional sense. Otherwise what would the Chosen Ones, now grown adults, deal with in this book? What could be bigger than the Dark One? PTSD, broken relationships, weird superhero fame?…I kind of hoped that was what the book was about–an anti-story if you will–but the story is actually about how the stuff they did as teenagers was just leading up to bigger events. As stories typically work, the big stuff isn’t until the ending.
Chosen Ones is told mostly in the present, but there are quite a few flashbacks to how they defeated the Dark One the first time. The Dark One is a bad villain, evil to be sure, but also one-dimensional until the last pages, too little too late. The saviors are difficult to nail down too. You get a clear snapshot of them as adults, but not who they were or what they did as teenagers. For all the flashbacks and references to the past, you don’t actually know what they did for the years they fought the Dark One. I get the sense they randomly drove around the country and then finally killed the Dark One mostly by accident.
Obviously, I have a lot to say about this book, and it has been on my mind quite a bit. I thought about making a video, but the book released months ago and there are already a few reviews up on YouTube. I guess what keeps me thinking about this is imagining what could have been. I had hoped to see something different for the Chosen One trope, but it all fell into the same routine when the story got started. Especially because the title is what it is, I can’t help but judge the rest of the book by how it deals with that trope. It’s actually a decent read, there are some interesting characters, the pacing is excellent, and there’s some humor and timely references, however, I still feel I didn’t get what I was promised as a reader and I keep thinking about how it could be fixed. There’s something on a developmental level in the story that needed a change.
However, that’s just one reader’s opinion. If you’re still here to the end and find yourself interested, go ahead and read Chosen Ones. It’s a good book. And then let me know when you’re finished because then we can talk about how it could have been a great book.
By Natalie Zina Walschots
Hit up my book review of Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots on YouTube. I was pleasantly surprised by the likable villains and the arm twist Walschots got the superhero trope in.
Anna works as a temp for your standard super villain. She’s not a bad person per say, she just needs to pay her bills. When her boss invites her to a press conference turned kidnapping, Anna doesn’t expect Supercollider himself to make an appearance. The world’s most popular superhero makes short order of the kidnapping as well as Anna herself. When Supercollider tosses Anna out of the way, her leg shatters and she’s left wondering if Supers do more bad than good in the world.
By Chuck Wendig
I bet you noticed that Wanderers by Chuck Wendig appeared in all three months and that’s because I’m reading it month-by-month in real time and discussing the pandemic and politically relevant themes on our YouTube channel.
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