Review: The Poppy War

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

R.F. Kuang has retold the historical accounts of the Opium Wars from an Asian perspective in a mythical land full of magic, wonder, and suspense. You can read more about her books on her website.

As a book about war, it is very dark and real. Unlike The Hobbit which told the tale of war in a couple sentences, The Poppy War goes deep and hard into the tragedies and misdeeds of war. You see it all here: people doing drugs to cope with the dark deeds of war and death, the prestige of schools designed specifically to teach military excellence, the ravages of war and the taking of “spoils,” the intimidation tactics, and so many more grotesque aspects to war.

What this book does well is draw you slowly into the coming war as you follow a young woman trying to escape the poverty and abuse she was living in. As you follow her you get to see through her eyes as she learns that magic is real and begins to pursue learning it herself.

Overall I give this book 4 stars. If you’re ok reading a very violent book then this mythical retelling of the Opium Wars is a good book to give a try.

Up Next: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

Review: A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

This was the sixth year of our ongoing Christmas Eve tradition to give each other a book and spend the day reading it. The ones my wife has gotten me in the past are Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Emperor’s Soul, A Christmas Carol, and Spinning Silver).

This year’s choice clearly has the best title of any of the Christmas Eve books she’s gotten me in the past. I don’t know how anyone could read that and not pick it up to read. Who wouldn’t want to know how to use magic and baking together? In fact, I’m not sure why you’re still reading this review… you should have already put it in your Amazon cart or called up your local bookstore to get it on hold for you.

If you’re still reading this, you must really want a review to read, so I guess I’ll give you one…

This is the story of a young wizard, fourteen-year-old Mona. But she isn’t like the great wizards that guard the city. She can’t call lightning, manipulate one of the big elements like air or water. No, her power is much more mundane, she can talk to bread.

This isn’t much of a power at all really. Telling your bread not to burn or to fluff up a bit nicer isn’t going to stop any wars anyway. But when an assassin targets Mona, she needs to grow up fast and see what her small magical gift can really do.

This book is a great book for the young ladies in your life. Mona is someone to look up to, who does hard things when others around her fail. This book is inspiring and cute.

Overall I give this book 4 stars. Perfect book for a teenager.

Up NextThe Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

Review: The Plotters

The Plotters by Un-Su Kim

Recently my wife has convinced me to read more works written outside of America. By doing so we stretch our minds to understanding more cultures and give ourselves the freedom to more accurately see the problems in our society that we’re blind to. This book was written by a Korean which fit well with my attempts this year to learn Korean. I didn’t read it in Korean, but being able to see the culture and some of the transliterated words really helped me grasp things a bit more.

In trying to choose a Christmas Eve book for me for this last Christmas, she was torn between three options and ultimately bought them all and gave each of them to me. This one was given to me a month before Christmas when I was stuck in a reading slump.

The Plotters by Un-su Kim is a noir novel that takes place in Seoul and was translated into English by Sora Kim-Russell. This book follows the assassin Reseng as he fulfills the contracts he’s given without questioning the reasons behind his orders.

One day that’s all turned upside down when one of the masterminds behind all the assassinations (Plotters) starts putting orders in to have assassins killed. Reseng must decide what he’s going to do and things get more and more perilous for him.

As someone learning Korean and Korean culture, reading this book was full of little Easter eggs for me, and I treasured each one.

Overall I give this book 3 stars. It’s pretty dark and gritty all around which is not really my cup of tea.

Up NextA Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

Review: Talk to Me In Korean Level 1

Towards the beginning of the pandemic, I decided I wanted to add a new skill to my repertoire and choose to learn a language. I have never successfully become conversant in a language despite multiple attempts to do so. I took two years of Spanish in High School and never felt like I understood much. Since then I’ve tried learning American Sign Language (ASL) and Koine Greek. In both cases, I learned enough to communicate specific ideas and translate minimal content, but if I faced someone who knew the languages, I’m certain I’d be left in the dust immediately.

Since I’ve continually failed to learn a language I wanted to prove to myself that I could learn a language and instead of restarting one of my failed languages, I chose one that’s part of a culture I’ve begun falling in love with: Korean. This had a double reward, because if I succeed I learn a cool language. But also, if I succeed I learn one of the hardest language for native English speakers and thereby prove to myself that I can learn any language.

Talk To Me In Korean (TTMIK) is a robust resource for this endeavor and even offers a host of resources and podcasts on their website and on YouTube absolutely free. I started there and only added these books in when I needed help cementing things in my mind. If I could do it again, I’m unsure if I’d pay for this book (pictured above) as it’s basically word for word what you can get on the website. I did find it useful to be able to write in it and take notes, but if you’re trying to save money I would recommend not getting this book and sticking with what you get on the web.

The workbook is really what helped me the most. The translation exercises really made my mind think through things I was taking for granted when using just the other book. This book is probably going to be essential for anyone trying to learn Korean through TTMIK.

As I write this review, I’m actually just a couple of lessons away from finishing level 2 and I feel like these lessons have worked well together to form an understanding in my mind. My wife and I have even watched some Korean Dramas and I can understand a good chunk of the words.

Overall I give these two books 4 stars each. I’ve seen some people comment that this series is really good and building good grammar but lacks in developing a wide vocabulary. I would affirm this critic.

Up Next: The Plotters by Un-Su Kim

Review: Once Upon a Time in Carrotland

Once Upon a Time in Carrotland by Josh Carrott

Every year for the last few years, Ollie Kendal has gotten Josh Carrott wonderful carrot themed presents to commemorate their visit to the not-so-well-known theme park Carrotland. Ollie has characterized the video of their trip to Carrotland as the worst idea in their entire YouTube career. But each year the carrot-themed extravaganzas got more and more strange and wonderful and somehow began to redeem the travesty that was their initial visit to Carrotland. Then, nearly a year ago, this wonderful video dropped on YouTube.

I secretly wrote & published my best friend’s autobiography(lol, I actually did tho)

Now you have to understand, I’m a big fan of pranks. I once helped stage a fake wedding, turned my boss’s office into a storage room while he was on vacation, and converted the back room of the retail store I used to work at into a construction zone. I’ve done so many different pranks over the years I sometimes lose track. All this is just to say that a good prank is a work of art. (I actually have rules for what makes a good and bad prank, but that’s for a different article for a different day.)

In this prank, Ollie hits gold. This is the perfect prank. After watching that YouTube video I went out and ordered my copy, and I was not alone. So many Jolly fans went and bought copies that this book became a best seller in many countries around the world.

This book is full of in-jokes, pop culture references, and all kinds of nonsense. If you love British humor, you will no doubt enjoy this book. It is quite cleverly written, jokes made in the first chapter will build and return in fun ways throughout the book.

And while it is extremely well done, this is not a literary masterpiece, and it will likely not stand the tests of time.

Overall I give this book 4 stars. As a comedy, gag, faux autobiography it’s ingenious. But as a practical matter, it did need a bit more editing.

Up NextTalk To Me In Korean Level 1 by TalkToMeInKorean

Review: Uprooted

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik is a talented author. She wrote a brilliant historical fiction series outlining what it might be like to live a few hundred years ago, but with dragons. That amazing series, the Temeraire series (see my review for His Majesty’s Dragon), was my first introduction to her as a writer. And then last Christmas Eve, my wife gave me Spinning Silver and I realized that Naomi Novik is a premium author. I was fascinated then, as I am now with this book, with how Naomi is able to paint such incredibly intelligent characters as engaging people you want to read more of. In our modern movie and TV era, thinking is a task we tend to regard as boring, but Naomi brings them to life and makes you love every moment of it.

Naomi Novik has a masterful understanding of human nature and pours that understanding into the move believable characters. There are characters that you will hate and characters that you will love, but the whole while you read it you’ll be caught up in this wondrous magical world full of Polish folklore and Jewish history.

The world is a strange place, and the woods are not to be trusted. Venture too far into the corrupted woods and you won’t come back the same. The dragon is the only one keeping these lands safe and while the people don’t like him, they still support him because they know that without him the woods would devour their livestock, crops, and even their homes. The price of his protection is one young girl to serve him for ten years. Each decade he chooses another. You’ll be on the edge of your seat as the dragon comes to steal a young woman away to be his next servant. What will happen next? Will she escape? Will she be eaten? Everyone outside this valley knows he eats the girls. But in this valley, they’re sure he doesn’t.

It’s hard for me to not spoil the whole plot as I write this review… it’s so exciting, twisty, and unimaginable. Everyone I know who’s read this book has devoured it. You’re hooked from chapter one to the very end.

And so, let this be my warning to you:

Remember to eat, drink, and sleep. There is a whole world outside of this book that you must still engage with.

Overall I give this book 4 stars. There is some sexual content.

Up NextOnce Upon A Time In Carrotland: My YouTube Autobiography Which I Definitely Wrote All Of by Josh Carrott

Review: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

I became aware of this book when one of my fellow book-loving friends gave it one of the strongest recommendations I have ever seen. I didn’t know what the book was about based on her review, but I didn’t need to know, because we’ve already shared enough book love between us that I knew it was going to be fantastic.

Nichole Thorsen The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle Review

So after reading this strong endorsement, I immediately bought a copy and started reading it soon after it arrived. For those of you that only needed to see such an impassioned plea to consider picking this book up, I suggest you stop reading now and go pick up this book. Don’t read the back, don’t read a synopsis, just dive in. Let yourself be confused and curious about this unknown and strange world.

For the rest of you:

From the outset this book is fascinating. The main character wakes up with no memories of who he is or how he got there. The only thing he remembers is the name Anna, but who she is or why that name is lodged in his head he cannot recall.

We soon learn that our main character’s name is Aiden Bishop and he’s trapped in a stranger’s body. He’s informed that there will be a murder tonight, and his only way out is to solve it. But there’s a catch: the murder won’t look like a murder and the murderer and victim will not appear to be who they are.

What follows is a crazy series of events where our protagonist does everything he can to learn about the murder and solve it before time runs out.

You’ll be on the edge of your seat. You’ll be disgusted at times, enthusiastic at others, scratching your head, and flipping back through the pages to double-check your recollections constantly.

About six months after I read this book, my wife read it and it was super fun watching her freak out and ask questions. I had to be really careful in what I said because all the twists and turns are so cleverly done that there was little chance I would remember when and where and why they happened six months later.

Overall I give this book 4 stars. I docked a star because there are two days back to back that were really hard to read. One involves a lot of fat-shaming and the other someone who has given themselves over the hormonal desires of their flesh. But I just checked my goodreads and every friend of mine who’s read this disagrees and gave it 5 stars. So what do I know?

Up NextUprooted by Naomi Novik

Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7 by Mark L. Levine

I had never heard of the Trial of the Chicago 7 until I saw that there was a movie about it and decided to watch it last year. I was absolutely bewildered in watching it. The defendants and the judge were complete spectacles. I was at a loss throughout the entire movie. This can’t be real, right?

So I looked into it and sure enough, this is a true story. The movie takes some liberties, but the book is literally just sections of the transcript of the trial.

I grew up basically being taught that our government is extremely well balanced and fair to all people, but when you learn about a story like this one, it becomes evident that this is not true. Here are some of the atrocious things that happened in the book:

  1. Denying a defendant his right to a lawyer.
  2. Binding and Gagging a defendant merely because he is choosing (in the absence of the lawyer he was denied) to defend himself. (Pictured below)
  3. Overruling disproportionately and unreasonably the defense’s objections.
  4. Holding all the defendants and defense attorneys in contempt of court on 170 infractions which amounted to 2.5 years – 48.5 months jail time.
  5. The trial went on for 4+ months which is just a ridiculous amount of time.
Howard Brodie. [Bobby Seale attempting to write notes on a legal pad while bound and gagged in the courtroom during the Chicago Eight conspiracy trial in Chicago, Illinois], between October 29 and November 5, 1969. Color crayon and on white paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (039.00.00)
LC-DIG-ppmsca-51105 © Estate of Howard Brodie

Honestly so much more happened that it’s really hard to read or watch. I recommend this movie and book to anyone trying to better understand the current social upheaval in our country. These events are repeating themselves and it seems most of America doesn’t even realize it.

Overall I give this book 5 stars.

Up Next: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Review: On Social Justice

On Social Justice by St. Basil the Great

The best way to know the historical position of the Christian church is to go back to the early church and see what they taught. That’s exactly what we get when we look at these sermons by St Basil the Great who lived around the same time as the Nicean Creed was being put down on paper.

St. Basil, one of the early church fathers taught about social justice 1600 years ago, 1400 years before the term “social justice” was ever coined, and 1500 years before “social justice” became synonymous in certain Christian circles with communism and socialism. It is here that we can learn what the early church believed about this topic and how our faith today aligns with or diverges from our ancient tradition.

Basil was born to a wealthy family and grew up in the upper class of society. He taught three main principles: 1) that we should use our wealth in a sustainable way – it should not stagnate like a well that is unused but should be emptied so that the water in the well is fresh for all who use it. 2) Christians should distribute their wealth so that anything that is above what they need is given to those that are in greater need. 3) All the earth is God’s and meant to sustain us all, so we should all share it.

The ultimate expression of his teaching was his creation of what became known as the Basiliad where the poor and diseased could come get food, shelter, and medical care free of charge. Some have called his work the first hospital.

Through all of the works of his life, several sermons have remained treasured throughout the ages and descended to us today in this compilation work by C. Paul Schroeder. The works in this book are various addresses to the rich, the poor, and those affected by famine and drought. His biblical instruction is well-rooted in Scripture and challenging to wrestle with. Though this book is brief it is one that is a treasure in any library.

Top Quotes

Sometimes affliction proves the heart like gold in a furnace, testing its purity by means of suffering. But for many, it is prosperity of life that constitutes the greatest trial. For it is equally difficult to preserve one’s soul from despair in hard times, and to prevent it from becoming arrogant in prosperous circumstances.

If you had truly loved your neighbor, it would have occurred to you long ago to divest yourself of this wealth. But now your possessions are more a part of you than the members of your own body, and separation from them is as painful as the amputation of one of your limbs.

Pg 43

The loss of money can be a terrible thing to experience and even contemplate, but isn’t it that feeling that lets us know we’re addicted to money more than we are to Jesus? If we had given our money to the poor and invested in those around us, what money would we have left to fear losing? What loss could hurt us when we have as little out the most neglected neighbors around us?

Jesus told us that it was harder for the rich man to enter the kingdom, and somehow we convince ourselves that poverty and hardship is where life is most difficult. Basil does well to remind us that luxury and the ease afforded by a large wallet are often the true tests of our souls.

For if what you say is true, that you have kept from your youth the commandment of love and have given to everyone the same as to yourself, then how did you come by this abundance of wealth?

Pg 43

The biblical law requires generosity. How are your pockets so lined with credit cards and money, your walls so well decorated in TVs, art, and useless things and yet the poor around you starve and struggle?

Indeed you refuse to give anything, insisting that it is impossible to satisfy the need of those who beg of you. You profess this to be true with your tongue, but your hand gives you the lie; silently, your hand bears witness to the falsehood, flashing as it does with your the jewels from your ring. How many could you have delivered from the want with but a single ring from your finger? How many households fallen into destitution might you have raised? In just one of your closets there are enough clothes to cover an entire town shivering with cold. You showed no mercy; it will not be shown to you. You opened not your house; you will be expelled from the Kingdom. You gave not your bread; you will not receive eternal life.

Pg 49

The wealth we have in America is more than we deserve. It should be a part of our daily lives to help those in worse straights than we are ourselves.

“I will pull down my barns and big larger ones.” But if you fill these larger ones, what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again? If you want storehouses, you have them in the stomachs of the poor. Lay up for yourself treasure in heaven.

Pg 68

I had never thought about how ridiculous our pursuit of comfort goes. We build a house, sell it, and build another one all in the pursuit of greater and greater comfort. But in this pursuit, we are storing up treasures here on earth instead of in heaven. What good is a larger house? What good is a bigger bank account? Don’t they just speak to our greed? If we don’t use those homes and dollars to aid those around us, we are storing up our treasures only to have the next wildfire swing through and claim them.

Overall I give this book 4 stars. It is full of great analogies and references to Scripture that will prick the Christian heart. I dock one star just because I disagree with him on some points, but his challenging my thinking on these areas is greatly appreciated. And his words and thoughts have remained in my mind throughout this last year.

Up NextThe Trial of the Chicago 7 by Mark L. Levine

Review: The Sun Does Shine

The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton

I had read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson in 2020 and loved it. My wife, the thoughtful woman she is, thought I might appreciate that true story from another perspective. And so for either Christmas or my birthday, she got me this book. I read it early last year, right after I finished What is a Girl Worth? by Rachael Denhollander, and I devoured it While both Denhollander’s story and this one deal with injustice and both were victims of evil, I found this one a little easier to read.

Hinton was a man of uncommon humor, and if you know what Just Mercy is about then you can guess that Hinton was wrongly imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. His penalty was death. Hinton had the unfortunate and inescapable misfortune to be so close to the execution chamber that he could literally smell the burning flesh as each man died. While ultimately Hinton’s conviction was overturned and he got to live in the real world again, the facts of his incarceration are a punishment no one should have to endure, must less an innocent man.

Ray lived on death row for thirty years. Thirty years where everyone thought he was a murderer. Thirty years where his life was put on hold. Thirty years where his nose was assaulted by the smell of burning flesh.

There is some encouragement and hope in this book, his best friend never believed he was guilty and continued to come see him weekly for thirty years. I can’t imagine having a friend like that. What a bond they have enduring such a hardship together. Take what you will from this story, Ray’s best friend is someone inspiring and someone that we should aim to be for our friends in their hardships.

The injustice in our courts and in our prisons is something we should not stand for. This story is worth reading to help correct our natural inclination to believe that all criminals are guilty. We need to learn compassion for those people like Hinton that have been put through thirty years of pain for no reason at all. We need to begin to think and work to help people get out of such situations.

Overall I give this book 5 stars.

Up NextOn Social Justice by St Basil the Great