11 April 2017

Review: Avengers of the Moon

Avengers of the Moon Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5

I think I was 60-70% in when I saw like “wow, this is really pulpy” only to learn after the fact that this is, in fact, a homage/reboot to a pulp classic from generations ago. A modernization of the Captain Future tales of old, this evokes all those same ideas and themes without feeling too old, but I feel as if you really need to have a bit of a context for what this is a tribute to in order to fully appreciate it for what it is.

Beyond that major roadblock, this is a really fun romp. The stakes aren’t too high, and it still works in spite of it being so different from the current crop of science fiction writing out there. Allan Steele has always excelled at being different, and this is true for Avengers of the Moon, too. Worth a look.

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04 April 2017

Review: Winter Tide

Winter Tide Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I know there continues to be a bit of a Lovecraftian renaissance happening in terms of some of the fantasy books coming out. Winter Tide takes a historical fiction bent to the proceedings and gives a good, but far from great, attempt at expanding out the Mythos.

The story takes place a while after the eradication of the people and place of Innsmouth. The government effectively destroyed Innsmouth following an attack, and only two people have survived. Now there's concerns that information from Miskatonic University is falling into the wrong hands, and it's now up to the few survivors of the Innsmouth situation to solve the problem.

There's a clear post-internment attitude to this, which is a nice twist for the Mythos itself as well as a cool take on the story. There's a lot of time spent on the research and in the libraries, and that might be the book's downfall - it takes a lot of time in this area, and for questionable benefit. I spent a good deal of time hoping they'd get on with it to the point where the ending of the story was both fulfilling while also being frustrating in its climax.

I have not read "The Litany of Earth," a short story that has some of the same characters, so I may have missed some key points along the way, but overall, I liked but didn't love this story. There have not been any lack of Lovecraft-style tales of late, so I wouldn't bump this to the top of the list, but I would say that it's worth a look for a different style of story. I feel like I might want to read a story like this that focuses more on research aspects, but perhaps without some of the baggage that comes with this sort of tale.

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Review: Waking Gods

Waking Gods Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was supremely impressed by Sleeping Giants, which was a great documentary-style science fiction book about finding the pieces to a giant robot littered across the planet. If Giants was about discovery, Waking Gods is about consequences, and that's what ultimately makes the sequel work. We get to delve even more into the worldwide response to the robots but, more importantly, we get a much more detailed idea as to what the robots might mean.

It's hard to discuss this book without completely spoiling what goes on, but there are more than enough shocking moments throughout that make this into another winning tale and ends in a way that makes me really look forward to what's coming next. As long as the style of the story doesn't take you out of it, this is a series worth watching.

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10 March 2017

Review: Seven Days of You

Seven Days of You Seven Days of You by Cecilia Vinesse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The best way I can describe this is Lost in Translation for the teen set. A book that celebrates the opportunity to live and study abroad, along with everything else that goes along with it, it’s both quiet and fun, exciting yet subdued.

Why, then, am I not enthused by this book?

I couldn’t tell you 100% of the reasoning why. A lot of it is that this book doesn’t feel like it has a ton in the way of stakes going for it. There was little reason for me to root for a particular outcome, and everything felt rather mapped out from the start for me. The adventures (and I use the term here in context) felt fairly subdued on a whole, and, honestly, there wasn’t a ton here for me to invest the emotional energy.

Truly, there’s perhaps an argument to be made that this is more about setting and such for the audience rather than the deep story. But I compare it to Lost in Translation in that the story is one that I remember very little about while continuing to have very strong and vivid visuals. The result is a book that, in a way, felt like a vacation I’d like to go on, just not necessarily with the people involved. A good read, but far from mind-blowing.

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Review: Agents of Dreamland

Agents of Dreamland Agents of Dreamland by CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A collection of shortish chapters in a novella that’s supposed to evoke a Lovecraftian feel, but it really just didn’t do the trick for me. I didn’t go in with much of any expectations, and I just found a lot of this to be a little lacking on a whole, and then it was over. Reading an advance of it, by the time I neared the end I was actively afraid that I had picked up a sample of the book instead of a full novel.

Overall, I just felt really disappointed by the whole thing. I’m usually into everything Lovecraft, but this missed the mark.

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06 February 2017

Review: Shadowbahn

Shadowbahn Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

I never like throwing in the towel on advance books, but Shadowbahn, in spite of its interesting premise where the Twin Towers reappear in the Badlands, just didn't work. Part of it is my fault - I thought the author was the same guy who does the Malazan books, but this simply means that the experimental tale told here is even less relevant to my interests on a whole. It's a weird book - not a difficult one - but one that just wasn't what I wanted or looked for.

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04 February 2017

Review: Hex

Hex Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not generally one for witch stories. I don't know if I just feel like the genre is played out, or if I don't get the impression that there's much new to be said, but they've never really grabbed me even though I'm reading more horror than I ever have before. Hex, though, changed my mind a bit. A modern way of dealing with a long-standing trope, it hits all the right beats for a classic story while being totally unique.

Hex takes place in a smallish town. The town is basically under significant lockdown due to a witch that has been haunting the town for hundreds of years. There's a military outpost nearby due to the haunting, the town itself has cameras everywhere to track its movement and location, there are rules about outsiders, about coming and going, and so on. The witch herself has her mouth and eyes sewn shut for reasons lost to the modern world, but no one really dares to test whether it's necessary. Kids prank the witch, sometimes they just put a drape over her when she's in the way, but it's the big elephant in the room. Of course, some teens have had enough, and what they do disrupts the entire town and the tenuous existence that they exist in.

In many ways, this reminded me of Wayward Pines in a sense, in that there are a lot of minor story points revealed along the way that help explain some of the weirdness. But, while it has its elements that remind me of certain things, what's great about this book is how utterly unique it is. This is a story that can't exist in any other time, and can't exist without the international discussions about the internet, about modern surveillance, and without the sorts of stories horror books tell about humanity in and of itself. There's never a dull moment here, and it just makes for an amazing read.

This is an interesting read, too, because the original story is in a different language and has a different ending specific to that area. I don't know what that ending is, but man, if it's half as good as the English language one, I hope it gets translated. For now, though, if you like weird stories at all, you need to shoot this to the top of your list. One of my favorite recent reads.

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17 January 2017

Review: Martians Abroad

Martians Abroad Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Martians Abroad is a great story about kids being sent off to a boarding school and the sort of intrigue that goes on within their walls according to the relevant tropes. What's surprising is that this book is not marketed as YA while doing so.

The story follows two kids, one of which desires to be an interplanetary pilot. Being from Mars, this adds a collection of extra difficulties, both from the Martian educational system not being well-respected to Mars kids themselves having to adjust to Earth culture (never mind gravity). While Charles is perfectly willing to go along with whatever, his twin sister Polly is not so interested in simply going along with things, and we get to watch as her strong will both helps and hurts her along.

In terms of a straightforward boarding school story, this works really well. The science fictional elements are obvious, but spend a lot of time being secondary in favor of solid characterization and an interesting story with a lot of wrinkles. It reads as YA, though, and this might be a turn-off for some readers (including fans of Carrie Alexander), although it wasn't for me. In a time where Tor has marketed some adult stuff as YA recently, the marketing of this as "adult" is especially puzzling, but that's just one of the weird publishing downsides to this. If you're open to reading this sort of thing, you should absolutely get on board, as this was a fun ride.

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08 January 2017

Review: Heartless

Heartless Heartless by Matthew Rossi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Matt Rossi continues to make some interesting and compelling fiction, and Heartless, the second book in the Nameless series, takes a different tack that works really well for the series. Where Heartless felt like more of a focus on a traditional-style fantasy informed by video game narratives and interesting fantasy/horror tropes, Heartless succeeds in flipping the script around. It leads with some cool action and then moves into a narrative that is more about people coping with the world they're now in, complete with our heroes involved in romantic trysts and real-world scenarios while everything else around them is insane.

It's a way to handle a story that I can't say I've read before, and the result is a story with a different style of investment compared to other epics or urban fantasy tales. If you're looking for a lot more action similar to the first book, this might be a jolt to the system, but the character base here, and the way our heroes interact with each other? That's where the quality comes into play.

This isn't to say the book is perfect. The way the book handles its action sequences this time around does not have the same feel as the first book, and the dialogue sequences on occasion feel more informed by the setup in games than in real life, but these are more nitpicky issues than true dealbreakers for the story. At the end of the day, this book was a solid and enjoyable read. My only regret is that I didn't get to it sooner.

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07 January 2017

Review: At The Cemetery Gates: Year One

At The Cemetery Gates: Year One At The Cemetery Gates: Year One by John Brhel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this closer to Halloween (I'm...a little behind), and this collection of short tales by Brhel and Sullivan evoke a lot of solid nostalgia. Much like their collection Marvelry's Curiosity Shop, Cemetery Gates is absolutely a love letter to campfire tales and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark alike.

Plenty of short tales throughout this play up classic horror tropes, from situations in cars to familiar assailants, but what makes this work is the pacing, which provides a very specific tone while still tossing in some surprises and not taking too long. The result is a number of bite-sized horror treats that strike an equal balance between fun and creepy.

What's worth noting beyond the basic enjoyable nature of these stories is the way Brhel and Sullivan are improving as storytellers from their earlier work. Even if this wasn't a solid read, I'm definitely looking forward to whatever it is that comes next.

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Review: Love and First Sight

Love and First Sight Love and First Sight by Josh Sundquist
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was pretty excited to see Josh Sunquist diving into YA fiction. Sundquist's We Should Hang Out Sometime was a great, relatable memoir, and seeing a book that might have some of his signature humor and storytelling in fiction form was fun to see. The book isn't perfect, but it ends up being a fairly pleasant read nonetheless.

In this book, Will is a blind student entering a regular school for the first time. He's able to be largely independent, but he makes a series of mistakes that start things off weird, but he quickly settles in with a group of people and ends up falling for a girl. The girl is guarded, but when Josh receives a chance to take part in an experimental treatment that could give him sight, he's forced to confront a lot of what he thinks he knows.

It's an interesting story, for sure, and has a lot of good, basic messages about disability and acceptance that aren't a bludgeon. The writing itself is kind of simple, which is maybe a drawback for some but worked for the story being told, and the end result of a surprising science fiction element of sorts made it even more enjoyable for me, personally. I'm not entirely sure whether this will work for all audiences, but with the rise of disability lit throughout, this definitely deserves to be part of the broader conversation. Absolutely worth a look.

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Review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies

Under Rose-Tainted Skies Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sick lit, as of late, seems to be moving back toward the mental illness realm after spending time with various terminal illnesses. Under Rose-Tainted Skies has some different things happening, from the OCD area to the whole shut-in idea, and it ultimately doesn't really offer much in the way of new ground.

It tells the story of a girl, Norah, who is so crippled by her agoraphobia that even going to the front porch is a problem. A new cute boy is across the street, tries to strike up a friendship, and it's just more and more complicated when feelings get involved.

The overall tone of this book is very straightforward, and I think the big flaw is that we don't ever get an opportunity to really feel sympathetic to Norah, as she's a character who doesn't seem to recognize anything happening to her and gets very "woe is me" while rejecting the help she needs. It's a realistic portrayal in a sense, but it's not one that lends itself to a quality narrative, especially in a genre that's littered with similar books, both modern and in the past. The love interest is almost too perfect in a way, as well, which simply plays off of Norah in a bad way as well. Some more obvious flaws would have helped.

Overall, this is fine. It's not great, but it isn't terrible, either. With so many other books in front of it along the way, this isn't one I would put at the head of the line, but if this is your favored genre, it might be worth a look.

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13 December 2016

Review: Iceling

Iceling Iceling by Sasha Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On one hand, the whole idea of a pod people-style science fiction story is very well-tread ground. It's going to take a lot to impress me in regards to a story like that. Iceling, surprisingly, delivers in this area in a YA field sorely lacking in non-dystopian science fiction.

Lorna has a sister, and her sister is a little strange. Rescued from an arctic expedition, she doesn't talk and sometimes has minor episodes, but, unexpectedly, she begins demonstrating a massive desire to go back north, toward where she was found. Callie decides to go along with this idea and leads to a significant uncovering of a massive conspiracy at best and something that could change the world.

For a book that's literally 50% travel, it's something that hooked me in really quickly and wouldn't let go. As more and more was revealed, and in a really deft way at that, I was just hooked further and further in until the book just ended with me wondering when I can get my hands on the sequel. It's that good, folks. One of the best of the year, and one I'm glad got written. A great introduction to a classic science fiction trope, and a great read even if you're familiar. A must read if you like YA.

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12 November 2016

Review: I Hate Fairyland, Volume 1: Madly Ever After

I Hate Fairyland, Volume 1: Madly Ever After I Hate Fairyland, Volume 1: Madly Ever After by Skottie Young
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my favorite comic in a while.

The idea is very simple. A girl slips into Fairyland and is placed on an adventure to get back home. The problem is that she is exceptionally bad at the quest, and is still stuck there 20-odd years later. Basically, she has become Fairyland's worst nightmare, and her reign of terror is basically ceaseless.

The comic is basically terrible things happening to fantastical creatures and the terrible ways they try to reply. It's super violent, but hilariously so, and I am more of the "sensible chuckle" style of reader when it comes to funny stuff and this one had me legitimately laughing out loud. The art is great, the jokes funny, and the plot unpredictable.

I can't wait for volume 2. Get your hands on this one.

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Review: The Best Possible Answer

The Best Possible Answer The Best Possible Answer by E. Katherine Kottaras
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

There's a lot of room in the "life is falling apart" for teen reading these days, and The Best Possible Answer takes a slightly different path, highlighting a girl who is smart and can achieve a lot, but much of her life is spiraling out of her control and she needs to do what she can to cope.

I liked the realism and the way she dealt with one of the key issues of the book. I didn't love that the way the narrative is structured means that there wasn't enough time to really dive into a lot of the scenes. I found the characters surrounding our main character not all that realistic, but I enjoyed the read enough on a whole to let that go by.

This is a solid read, and much better than Kottaras's last book. I want to love her books and I have a lot of hope for the next one, but this one might require some care.

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Review: Crosstalk

Crosstalk Crosstalk by Connie Willis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I hated this book.

I shouldn't be so harsh, but it's true. This is a great idea by a great author that would make a great short story - people getting implants of a sort to forge a more significant bond with their loved one, and the bond goes a little wrong. The idea has intrigue, corporate malfeasance, societal questions, and all sorts of goodies.

It also has about 400 pages of extra fluff that add little to the story and pull us away from the best parts.

The flaw in this book is that this is a tight tale with a lot of positives going for it, but the middle drags so much. It's meant to flesh out the setting and the characters, but it was wholly unnecessary and ended up pulling the entire narrative into a slow, plodding mess. By the time things picked up again toward the end, it was harder and harder for me to care.

Willis is a great author because she creates rich worlds with rich characters to inhibit them. The problem here is less what's good about this story and more about the overall misfire. I would love to read this book in a shorter format, but, as it is right now, I'd argue it just needs to be avoided.

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18 October 2016

Review: Munchem Academy, Book 1 The Boy Who Knew Too Much

Munchem Academy, Book 1 The Boy Who Knew Too Much Munchem Academy, Book 1 The Boy Who Knew Too Much by Commander S.T. Bolivar, III
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by this book, more because of the subject/topic-matter for this age group than anything else. It's rare to find this topic in middle grade, so I was quite pleased.

At its core, Munchem Academy is just another reform school. But Carter quickly realizes that everything is a bit strange, teachers included, and he's going to get to the bottom of it. Doing so requires him to be a little more heroic than he's used to, and uncover a dastardly plan along the way.

I don't want to give away the big reveal, since it's such a major part of the charm of this, but the twist alone doesn't rescue this from being largely paint-by-numbers in many regards. The similarities to countless books in many ways keep this from being great, but also gooses the appeal to kids who might be more reluctant to branch out a bit. Overall, though, the end picks up better than the beginning, and that lifts it from being okay to being pretty good.

Good for kids looking for a fun creepy story, or who like more supernatural mysteries. Not a lot of adult appeal here.

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13 October 2016

Review: Age of Blight: Stories

Age of Blight: Stories Age of Blight: Stories by Kristine Ong Muslim
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, this book.

A collection of (very) short weird stories, I think my only complaint about it is the overall length, as the collection is only a hair over 100 pages. But within those hundred pages you get great stories about clones, about sea monsters (and the discovery therein), apocalyptic diseases, and so on.

Why is this so great, though? I think there's a reasonable comparison to Kelly Link here, but where Link keeps her tongue firmly in cheek throughout, Kristine Ong Muslim succeeds in perfectly balancing her stories on the line between disturbing and ridiculous. There's enough of the awkward, gross, and strange here to satiate the hunger for strange stories, but it's hard not to giggle at the kid who used to use his tentacle to swing from the bannisters in his house, too.

Overall, I don't know how well known this book is or how easy it is to get it, but if you like weird short stories, you need to get your hands on it. Such a great surprise.

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10 October 2016

Review: Death's End

Death's End Death's End by Liu Cixin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At this point, I think I may have fully and completely been wrong about The Three-Body Problem. That was a book I liked but found very flawed for a lot of reasons, but the sequel, The Dark Forest, blew my mind. Absolutely crazy, and Death's End became maybe my most anticipated read of the fall.

The good news is that the quality of this series doesn't drop. Following the craziness at the end of Forest, we have what ends up being another interesting narrative shift where we slide back and forth between the traditional narrative and some more "primary" references, whether they be writings or reports or stories from the universe. This really kind of helps with the universe building and does a surprisingly good job of fleshing out some of the more complicated ideas. Always a plus. Also, the sense of urgency and despair remains throughout, with some genuinely difficult passages throughout as we race to the end.

The downside? Well, if we want to call it one at all, and if we want to refer to the one thing that keeps this from being as amazing as Forest, it's the book's way out. I have some issues with the way it ended, and I feel like it has too much similarity to another recent series (even though I believe this predates it even though there wasn't an English translation), and it's an ending that sometimes feels a little overdone. Still, I give it credit for trying to have some scientific underpinnings for it, and that's ultimately good enough for me given the journey to the destination.

Still? I think this is ultimately one of the best science fiction series of the last decade. I almost want to go back to Three-Body and see what I ultimately missed from that book because of how great the final two were, and I'm just sad that I can't experience this for the first time again. Hopefully we get more Cixin fiction translated into English soon.

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09 October 2016

Review: Hero of Dreams

Hero of Dreams Hero of Dreams by Brian Lumley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a fairly strange book. Previously unpublished before this volume was put out close to 30 years ago, this is the story of two people who are heroes in a dreamworld they share even though they're perfectly mundane in the real world. The heroics they go through int he dream world have a lot of Lovecraftian angles to them, and go full-blown by the end.

I enjoyed this well enough, but I suppose it's just strange in that the story itself just happens. There doesn't feel like there's a lot of agency to any characters, and perhaps that's intended with the dreamlike state in place for a setting, but so much of the plot is "this happens, and then this happens" that it becomes less about engagement with the characters and more about the overall setting.

I will absolutely keep running with this series, but it's just one of the weirder things I've read recently, and I don't think anyone but hardcore Lovecraft-philes like myself might get much out of it.

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Review: Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living

Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living by Matthias Buchinger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love little pieces of historical esoterica, and I don't use "little" as a play on words when it comes to this look at the life and work of Matthias Buchinger, who was a German artist born with dwarfism but without hands or feet, yet capable of artistic and slight-of-hand feats that are difficult for anyone. Ricky Jay was able to curate an exhibition of Buchinger's work, and this is a companion piece for the exhibition.

It's not significantly detailed, and much of the book is about Jay seeking out and procuring various Buchinger ephemera (interesting in itself), but for what it is, the book is really great. So many reprints of Buchinger are scattered about in the book as well that you get a good grasp as to his craftsmanship and ability first hand, which is often difficult to do in projects like this.

At the end of the day, this felt like a generous taste of an artist I absolutely want to learn more about. Absolutely recommended for those who love art or strange history.

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07 October 2016

Review: Uzumaki

Uzumaki Uzumaki by Junji Ito
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Comics by Junji Ito make the rounds on the internet constantly, and Uzumaki is constantly recommended as a good horror comic/manga, so I finally got a hold of an omnibus release. It mostly meets the standard, but sometimes it's a little off the rails.

The premise is that there is a small town in Japan near a lake that has been cursed. The curse involves spirals. The spirals possess people, they exist everywhere, and things become more and more insane as the spiral curse progresses. The curse takes a lot of forms, and the story unwinds itself in a way that answers a lot of the questions that come up along the way, but not without some seriously gross happenings.

There's always a suspension of disbelief in play when it comes to horror, and this in particular really needs it in a lot of ways. It's less jump scare and more just really gross and awkward, and while we can handle snail people or blood-sucking children, it makes the really absurd even more absurd as a result. This may be where some (lack of) knowledge of cultural and/or manga tropes comes into play for me, but some of the more eye-rolly parts kept me from loving something I really only liked.

I'm still excited to read more from Ito, for sure, and those who like horror and haven't done much in the manga space should absolutely check this out. Just manage the expectations a little bit and it might be more fun as a result.

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Review: Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs

Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs by Dave Holmes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I feel like I completely missed the TRL era of MTV, at least in terms of when I watched MTV. The years of N'Sync, Britney, et al were sometime in high school for me, so Dave Holmes is a name I only kind of know. But a friend raved about this book, and so I grabbed it because I sometimes like books like this, and it just worked out really well.

The book follows Holmes as he grows up, goes to school (local to me, at that), gets to MTV, and all the stuff in between. As a gay man, he talks about how his sexuality was handled at his Jesuit college and how it's worked out in the entertainment industry, and there are tons of fun musical and cultural references to fill up the spaces in between.

This is a very light read, but that's not anything negative about the book itself. In terms of a book I could just pick up and put down every so often, it was near-perfect, and Holmes knows how to tell a good story on a whole. I really have no complaints, and I tend to be very critical of memoirs anyway.

Pick this up, especially if you know Holmes or love pop culture. Just a quick, fun, enjoyable read.

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04 October 2016

Review: Hamstersaurus Rex

Hamstersaurus Rex Hamstersaurus Rex by Tom O'Donnell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Closer to a 1.5.

There's a rich tradition in children's books for seemingly absurd premises. The Chocolate Touch, How to Eat Fried Worms to a point, there's a lot of stuff out there that just gets to the heart of the crazy imaginations that kids can have.

That brings us to Hamstersaurus Rex, the story of a classroom hamster that gets into some protein bars and becomes part-T-Rex.


I have to say that this is really, really dumb. Like, really dumb. I love the lowbrow, but the caricature of the gym teacher, the really bad-at-being-a-bully-bully, the Evil Corporate Conglomerate (TM), all of these things mesh together for a story that just doesn't seem to work. There's nothing wrong with dumb books for kids - goodness knows there are enough dumb books and movies and shows for adults - but this one, just... yikes.

Avoid this if at all possible. It should have been better than it was.

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Review: Rebel Genius

Rebel Genius Rebel Genius by Michael Dante DiMartino
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

It's great to see middle grade books going a little darker in some regards, and even to see some tropes refreshed. Rebel Genius will get attention because of the author's association with Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it really should get some points more because of its treatment of the familiar/spirit animal motif.

The setting is sort of a Renaissance-era Europe where artists get Geniuses, a sort of familiar that represents their talents. People with them are persecuted, and so our hero finds an enclave where he's taught how to use his Genius and eventually fight back.

This isn't forging anything resembling new ground, but the use of these ideas along with some little-used concepts (like sacred geometry) make this a more interesting read even while it remains imperfect. More recent books like the Claire/Black Magisterium books do this sort of darkness better, and The Golden Compass remains a gold standard of sorts for the familiars concepts, but that doesn't mean kids, especially reluctant readers who are fans of Avatar, might not find a lot to love in this as an entrypoint.

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27 September 2016

Review: How to Avoid Extinction

How to Avoid Extinction How to Avoid Extinction by Paul Acampora
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I appreciate middle grade books that take some chances. This book, however, maybe took a few too many wrong turns along the way.

The story is mostly a road trip tale, where Leo, a caretaker for his afflicted grandmother, has to go with her on her latest fling many states away. He gets on board with his cousin and they effectively drive cross country with a dog and figure out exactly what Gram needs and keep her safe along the way.

It's a strange read in some regards, but I had some personal issues with the fact that the grandmother clearly has dementia or Alzheimer's and it's played less for the conflict and more for laughs. The story itself isn't the most realistic thing, but we know that going in, and while this adult reader was ultimately unhappy with the payoffs, I'm not sure kids will notice enough compared to a lot of the other things the story has going for it.

It didn't work for me, but it might work for other kids. Worth keeping on your radar, but there are a lot of better options available.

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18 September 2016

Review: Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Probably closer to a 3.5/3.75.

I'm an admirer of Barry Goldwater. While most conservative and/or Republican people my age point to Reagan as the standard bearer and such, Goldwater was much more my speed. Both a product of his time and way ahead of his peers, Goldwater was the presidential candidate in 1964 who lost huge, but ushered in a conservative movement that has largely dominated the American political structure ever since.

This book tells the story of the Goldwater rise, starting from the era of Goldwater's rise to national prominence through the end of the 1964 contest. There is a lot of detail about the sociopolitical situation of the time as well as the explicitly political era from Joe McCarthy to the assassination of JFK. It's ridiculously detailed and provides a pretty strong narrative flow for such a dense history title.

Where this falters a bit is that Perlstein does come in with a bit of an axe to grind. From the subtitle, we understand where he's coming from on this and, while he's more fair than not throughout, there's a lot of incredulity in the text about Goldwater and how he was able to catch fire the way he did. While Perlman is not wrong to highlight a lot of the dysfunction in the campaign, too much of the book does focus on events otherwise unrelated to the time that better fit the Johnson/JFK narrative, and a lot of time is spent with an almost mocking eye toward many of Goldwater's supporters. Maybe the most frustrating parts are things that were known by the time of publication, such as Perlman's dismissal of Joe McCarthy without even recognizing some of the disclosures from the Venona cables. This sort of narrative nonfiction, which has a real Howard Zinn-like quality in many aspects, takes away from the harder history of the overall piece.

I nitpick because I know this era fairly well (although I'm far, far, FAR from an expert) and because this is a widely acclaimed book, with much of the acclaim missing the real problems. The real problems, however, do not overshadow how compelling and detailed a read this ends up being, and there's more than enough rigor here to make this a valuable asset in the overall canon of the political era. I do look forward to reading Perlman's other books, and I hope the other books improve on what's already a good piece of scholarship.

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Review: Whisper to Me

Whisper to Me Whisper to Me by Nick Lake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel like this book is not getting the proper attention for how good this is.

This book has a very unconventional style, but it is about Cassie who wronged her boyfriend and wants to make sure he knows why. She also hears voices, and the voices definitely have an impact on this. This is a stilted, crazed look at a stilted, crazed situation.

This is kind of a love story, kind of a lost love story, but largely a tale about mental illness that's handled in a very interesting and different way. The briskness and the urgency that drive the narrative along made this a read that I basically blew through in less than 24 hours. You both feel a lot of sympathy for Cassie's situation while still allowing her a bit of agency in the situation she's in, and the whole of the story makes for a great read.

It's long, but don't sleep on this book. The alternative narrative style will likely keep your interest even if the book itself takes some time for you, but the overall experience was a huge winner for me and I hope it gets the acclaim I think it deserves. An absolute page turner.

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Review: A Week of Mondays

A Week of Mondays A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know quite how many ways I can state how much I loved this book.

Ellison has a really bad Monday for all sorts of reasons, from school to her boyfriend. She vows that if she could do it again, she'd get it right. The next morning she wakes up and it's Monday again, and she gets the opportunity to set everything straight.

Yes, this is basically Groundhog Day for the teen girl set, but it's so endearing. Ellison is fun and flawed, thoughtful yet impulsive. Her journey as a character is just great from start to finish, and I really felt for her toward the end, which is always a good sign.

This is a light and fun teen book, for sure, but there's also some good messages throughout to provide some added value. But just the fact that this book is such a great ride from start to finish is reason enough to give it a look, especially if you have love for this sort of repeating day story.

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17 September 2016

Review: Family Plot, The

Family Plot, The Family Plot, The by Cherie Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I honestly didn't know how much I wanted a good old fashioned ghost story until I picked this one up. Cherie Priest is best known for her steampunk stuff, and the non-steampunk stuff I've read of hers has been mixed for me, but this really worked.

The story takes place entirely at an estate on a hill in a small town. A family that clears out old estates and resells the contents has been contracted for this house, a house with a bit of a reputation in town of being a little creepy. Still, there's a lot of stuff here and could be a lucrative deal, so they buy and get to work. And then they find something in the back shed, and the fun begins.

This book feels shorter than it is, which is always a good time, even though the mysteries unravel at a slower-than-expected pace. There's a lot of love for the overall tropes here, and I can't help but wonder if the literal deconstruction of the haunted house was somewhat intentional here in its format. The big flaw, however, is how it never fully ramps itself up to a truly exciting climax. The pacing is such where by the time we get to the peak of everything, it's not nearly as impactful as I wanted it to be. As someone who likes the journey more than the destination much of the time, this wasn't a huge problem, but it was just an unexpected way to go.

Still, this was a very fun read for me and one I can recommend even for people who want to try this genre but avoid it due to being scared easily. It's no Nyctophobia, but it's a really solid entry into a tried and true genre.

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