19 September 2017

Review: Strangehaven: Arcadia

Strangehaven: Arcadia Strangehaven: Arcadia by Gary Spencer Millidge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With Twin Peaks done, I’ve began searching in earnest for books and shows to fill that void. Strangehaven is a comic series that came up more than a few times, and the series is delivering so far. This first volume introduces this quiet little town tucked away in an area that doesn’t appear to show up correctly on maps, with a weird cult in town, and with enough strange happenings throughout that keep you guessing as to what’s relevant and what’s not. The strange aspects of this have not materialized outside of a few small but important scenes, but I will say that I was absolutely riveted by this and had to stop myself from just going straight into the second volume.

Very solid read, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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Review: Summer of 1840: On the Shores of Singletary...

Summer of 1840: On the Shores of Singletary... Summer of 1840: On the Shores of Singletary... by Arthur L. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book by a local author in these parts, and has some local interest.

Summer of 1840 is an interesting historical romance combining the author’s love of old dance and the history of the Millbury/Sutton region to bring together a story that has a lot of Easter eggs for local readers while telling a fairly engaging love story along the way. Self-published, it’s been given a good editorial eye and the overall package is pretty great, and I really have few complaints about the whole thing. More critically, the story itself does take a little time to ramp up, but things feel otherwise realistic and a lot of the historical notesline up (and are meticulously researched).

If you have interest in local New England history and are looking for something a little lighter, this is a book that will fill that particular niche. It’s one I started out fairly skeptical on and ended up finding pretty readable and compelling. Ultimately closer to a 3.5.

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Review: The Last Kid Left

The Last Kid Left The Last Kid Left by Rosecrans Baldwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a low tolerance for murder mysteries and for literary fiction a lot of the time, so a book that effectively does both? I took a flier on this mostly because Jeff VanderMeer recommended it on Twitter, and I’m honestly glad that I spent some time with this.

There are a few aspects to this story – the kid implicated in the murder of two people, the teen girl embarking on a webcam career, and the small town stuff that invariably goes along with such a circus. The book is deliberate in unraveling all the implications and information, provides some interesting characters in the media to sharpen the edges, and provides some answers while offering new questions as well.

There’s a very Tom Perretta-esque feel to this, although this specific book feels a lot darker. There’s definitely meant to be a sort of introspective look here on media and kids in the modern day, and I’m not sure how well it hits the mark, but the full book was still extremely engaging and compelling, and that’s basically what I was seeking out here.

Definitely recommended, closer to a 4.5.



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Review: Sloppy Firsts

Sloppy Firsts Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve had this on my Kindle seemingly forever, and I’m actually familiar with the lead character through the middle grade series (which is basically the opposite of most adults), and a friend said it was one of her favorite series, so I dove in. This was written quite a while ago, and would likely slot in high-YA/new adult today, but that’s fine.

It essentially follows the year in the life of Jessica Darling, high school student, dealing with all sorts of basic high school drama. It’s paint-by-numbers in a lot of ways, except that this was probably a lot more revolutionary for its time. You’re getting the boy drama, the friend drama, the diary stuff, the whole nine yards, and it’s adult enough to not feel like you’re reading a young adult book, but has enough YA appeal to cross over, too.

I’m gonna stick with this series for sure. It’s a great diversionary read that ended up being a fun read for me, especially considering how little YA I’ve been able to consume as of late.

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Review: Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days

Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days by Chris Guillebeau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are two things that are true:

1) I generally don't like self-help reads.
2) I desperately want/need a "side hustle."

Chris Guillebeau provides a blueprint of sorts for those who are looking to engage in some side jobs. It's got a very "Four Hour Work Week" feel to it in a lot of ways, with a lot of hand-holding and "you can do it" affirmative-style framing. For someone like myself, who kind of knows the moving parts to doing some side gigs and has been stopping and starting on it, there's definite value in this book as a sort of inspirational text. Those who don't know what they're doing? This is possibly indispensable from this perspective in how easy Guillebeau makes it sound. But if you're already a hustler, there's not much here for you.

On a whole, this was a surprisingly better read than I anticipated. Good information, good balance of what one needs to make this work. No real complaints except its entry-level nature.

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29 August 2017

Review: Ban This Book

Ban This Book Ban This Book by Alan Gratz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ban This Book is the latest in a long line of middle-grade reads designed to send a message about a school/societal ill using precocious kids subverting authority. This is basically the Frindle of banned books, and as a message title that deals with a long-discussed topic, it's absolutely fine.

This book will appeal to the readers that it's geared toward in part due to the cameos of sorts by a lot of their favorite titles and authors - Dav Pilkey and Captain Underpants both feature broadly in this book in particular - and while the book does veer into unlikely territory as the arms race escalates, you can almost forgive it for the overall message.

While I fear this is more a book for librarians than for kids, there's enough kid appeal here to get through the noise, and Alan Gratz is a known name in slightly older circles in his writing, so this has a lot of promise. I don't know if I'd put it ahead of the Clements "School Stories," but it's worth being part of the discussion.

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28 August 2017

Review: The Secret History of Twin Peaks

The Secret History of Twin Peaks The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am totally and completely obsessed with Twin Peaks right now, and having an hour of The Return every week just hasn’t been enough. Now we have The Secret history, written by David Lynch’s Peaks partner Mark Frost, that acts as a document dump of the weird happenings that led us to what happened in the show.

From a basic “this scratches an itch” standpoint, this was a wonderful diversion. So much going on here that I loved, from the tiny Easter eggs to giving a much fuller accounting of some of my favorite characters and moments. Frost litters in a lot of real history (Lewis and Clark factor heavily into the Peaks Mythos, it turns out) in with the information established by the show, and we end up with a lot of background into some of the more important characters. With that said, it’s not all coffee and cherry pie – there’s a lot of diversions into UFO culture and more basic conspiracy theories that not only don’t quite fit into the overall Peaks experience, but almost divert it away from there. Plus, if you’ve watched The Return, some key moments in the show (most notably the happenings in Episode 8), barely factor into this book at all. An odd choice, perhaps, but one that I would have liked to see resolved – and maybe it will be in the companion to this that’s releasing soon.

Overall, though? One big Agent Cooper thumbs-up from me on this one. A great companion to a classic show, and a solid guidebook to The Return on a whole.

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Review: The Uploaded

The Uploaded The Uploaded by Ferrett Steinmetz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been keeping up with Ferrett Steinmetz for over 15 years on various internet platforms, and I’ve been jumping at the chance to read his books ever since he got an agent and was able to publish traditionally. His Flex series is a solid read across three books, and perhaps should have gotten more attention than they ended up receiving, but The Uploaded is Steinmetz’s shot at techno-dystopia. It… doesn’t always work.

Effectively, imagine if, instead of Social Security, the older folks moved their consciousness online instead. And they still got to run things, and it was up to the rest of us to maintain their servers and their way of life until it was out turn. That’s the idea behind this story, which follows some people who are willing to fight to undo the status quo.

The good on this is that, as with the Flex trilogy (and with some insight on how Steinmetz writes), there’s really not a wasted word here. The poetic-yet-seemingly-direct way he gets the plot from point A to point B is as much of a joy here as it was in his previous works. The issue, though, is that this is less of a story that lends itself to that sort of treatment. The Uploaded is reminiscent a lot of the sort of Cory Doctorow technopunk that has really hit home in the last few years, and the writing doesn’t always fit it. This means that the book does feel like it’s meandering off a bit in ways that were not probably intended. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the way that everything works out kept me engaged, but it’s not the same as Flex and doesn’t quite hit the same notes the same way as other books in this genre.

I don’t want to call it a miss, because the book still has its share of action and awesomeness. It’s just not great the way the Flex series was, and it’s just quite good in a lot of others. If the concept grabs you, the book probably will as well, but this is not as direct a recommendation for this book the way others might be. Dystopia, especially today, can be a tough sell, and the book makes a good attempt at being up to the challenge. Closer to a 3.5.

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Review: Nxt: the Future is Now

Nxt: the Future is Now Nxt: the Future is Now by Jon Robinson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I know better at this point than to read books like this. Still, as a wrestling fan who really, really likes NXT as a brand and product, I heard enough positive things in other reviews in wrestling circles about some of the insight this book gives into the overall project and process to give it a read.

The bad news? The morsels of interest are completely buried under a mountain of promotion and marketing that is so overbearing that it’s hard not to skim through portions as they’re repeated for the third, fourth, seemingly fifth time. The glowing adoration of everything NXT is doing from the wrestling talent to the complete lack of any indication that there haven’t been issues (like, most notably, the Bill DeMott bullying/hazing issue) makes this book almost indefensible outside of being a marketing piece, never mind a piece of literature that a publisher expects human beings to pay for. This isn’t a tie-in book or anything like that, it’s just a 200 page glossy profile that misses what makes the subject truly great.

Do not waste your time with this. Find a few posts on the internet highlighting the interesting takeaways from this book, and pretend the total package never existed. You’ll be better off.

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Review: Furnace

Furnace Furnace by Livia Llewellyn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I mentioned before, in my review for Gemma Files’s short story collection, that body horror ain’t really my thing. This book was mentioned in a Twin Peaks group I follow, noting that the story the collection takes its title from has a real Peaks-ian quality to it.

It does, but where this collection shines is in a lot of the other stories. The author isn’t afraid to put much of anything out there, and the result is a dark, often uncomfortable, occasionally psychosexual journey through a series of unrelated stories that hit that sweet spot of unsettling and thought-provoking. Considering how deep I’ve fallen into the New Weird/New Horror pit as of late, I’m frankly surprised this collection doesn’t get more attention.

Give “Furnace” a shot as a story, try the cowboy romance piece, and you’ll get a feel for the writing and want to spend a lot more time with this one. Just a great read, and one I’ll be recommending for some time.

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23 August 2017

Review: Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency

Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I dove into this book in the middle of a week that ended with Steve Bannon either getting fired or having his resignation take effect. So while part of me was laughing at the timing of reading this book when it didn't matter so much anymore, it was actually a solid read that gives a pretty solid background as to how we got the Trump we have now.

The story is less about Bannon (who is an interesting figure all his own) and more about his political impacts as of late. We get a surface-level look at how his history influenced his takeover of Breitbart and, later, the Trump campaign, and how his gadflyish attitude informs the current political conversation. On these points, this book is very interesting and informative. The book stumbles a bit when Green leaves the world of fact and begins editorializing a bit, but those places are few and far between and ultimately don't matter.

How long the legs for a book like this can be, I truly don't know. But if you're looking for a read about the current situation that is relevant to the now? Find a copy. It's likely to be pretty illuminating.

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25 July 2017

Review: Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a super cool book.

I want to say I heard the author or something about the book on a podcast a while back and sought this out. The book brings us deep into the lives and societies of various animals, giving us an idea as to how they operate, their heirarchical structure, and so on. One section is dedicated to elephants, another wolves, and so on.

For someone who has limited science knowledge, this was a really great book where I learned a lot. Elephant societies are fascinating! Wolves are weird! It's all super interesting and complicated, and this book strikes the near-perfect balance of not dumbing the information down while also not playing a pandering game with the audience. An underrated nonfiction read for me - I don't know why I'm not constantly hearing about this book.

If you like science, animals, biology, sociology, learning... check this one out.

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21 July 2017

Review: And We're Off

And We're Off And We're Off by Dana Schwartz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My favorite thing about this book is the concept - any time a story wants to subvert the coming-of-age traveling novel, I'm on board, and when it's because an overbearing mother trying to relive her own teen years vicariously through her daughter? I'm totally in.

It's sort of like a Gilmore Girls episode with a lot more conflict, and there's a lot to love about it on a whole as our mother-daughter team bumble through Europe and ruin each other's experiences.

The downside to this book is that the conceit does get a little stale in the middle part until things move to their conclusion. Getting to the end can be a bit of a rough patch if you're used to a more typically-paced narrative from the YA genre, but that shouldn't keep you away from the book on a whole.

It's funny and it's got a lot of heart, and it's definitely a fun read in the genre.

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20 July 2017

Review: The Night Ocean

The Night Ocean The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

While I'm pretty much into a lot of Lovecraftian stuff these days, The Night Ocean takes a slightly different exploratory track with it to mixed results. Ostensibly about a woman trying to find answers after her husband goes missing and how it lines up with her husband's obsession with a specific facet of Lovecraft's life, this book gets bogged down VERY quickly with a lot of fictional-and-not-so-fictional research and history, and the narrative completely loses the plot very quickly. As someone who enjoys books about research and such, yeah, sure - you do you, Paul LaFarge. But losing the narrative in service to theories regarding the Barlow/Lovecraft relationship simply didn't do the trick here.

This was a very frustrating read without the payoff I was hoping for, and I thought this book had some amazing potential. Unless your consumption is almost exclusively Lovecraftian in nature, consider skipping this one.

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Review: Kissing Carrion

Kissing Carrion Kissing Carrion by Gemma Files
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've noted before that I'm relatively new to horror at this point, and I've been delving into a lot of short stories as of late. While I didn't love Experimental Film, I was interested in the short stories of Gemma Files anyway, and this collection came highly regarded.

Like any collection, there are hits and misses, but there are a lot of solid, creepy stories here. The highlights of the title story, of the story with literal meat puppets, they don't take away from anything else, and even the stories that don't quite work still succeed in the efforts. My big complaint is less structural and more personal - one thing I have not been able to really do well with on the horror side of things is body horror, and Files deals heavily in this area. If that squicks you out a lot, this might not be the collection for you.

For everyone else, though? Check it out. The stories are quick and well-crafted, and there are some real gems here. Worth a read.

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Review: Windfall

Windfall Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

Jennifer E. Smith has hit her stride as of late with some great young adult romances. Windfall, from the cover alone, is very clearly a change of pace for her, and while it mostly works, what it gains in story development it loses in charm.

What is the windfall in Windfall? It's a birthday lottery ticket that ends up winning millions for a girl's best friend. The story quickly rolls into a cautionary tale about the pains and pleasures of a massive financial gain before hitting the inevitable redemption arc.

I'm not saying Smith had to go the route of truly negative results on this, especially for YA. But what was truly disappointing here was the paint-by-numbers approach throughout the tale that may not be immediately obvious to the target audience but was amazingly predictable to this adult reader. While I don't need surprises in YA, it doesn't mean they can't at least be tried. Still, it's a fine read and hits more than it misses - it's just not what I feel like it could have been.

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Review: Tomorrow's Kin

Tomorrow's Kin Tomorrow's Kin by Nancy Kress
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tomorrow's Kin is a solid, interesting first contact novel. As someone who generally really responds well to any first contact novel, to enjoy one a little more than the rest is not a bad thing in the least, and I would say that's where I place Tomorrow's Kin.

The premise is pretty straightforward, where some aliens land on Earth and, once communication is established, we learn about where they are from and why they are here. The results of all this information inform a story that becomes less about "what is it like knowing there's other life" and more about coping with the aftermath, both of meeting an alien race (and all that implies in this book's conceit) and of what the aliens came to accomplish. It's a unique and different take on the genre, and one I appreciated greatly.

The big downfall of this book? Approximately the first third is basically (if not entirely) a reprint of the novella that preceded it, Yesterday's Kin. I somewhat wish someone had warned me of this ahead of time, as I worked to complete the novella before diving into this only to find that I was basically rereading the novella immediately afterwards. If there were additions, they did not make a measurable impact on the overall story for me, so use this as a takeaway if you're already familiar with the novella. For new readers, though, you can dive right in without issue. Absolutely a great read and solid take on the subgenre.

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27 June 2017

Review: Mad as Hell: America's #1 All-Night Radio Host Takes on the Dangerous World We Live In

Mad as Hell: America's #1 All-Night Radio Host Takes on the Dangerous World We Live In Mad as Hell: America's #1 All-Night Radio Host Takes on the Dangerous World We Live In by George Noory
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So I admit that I really only knew George Noory from when I had late nights out and listened to Coast to Coast with him as a guest host. But still, this is marketed as a political book by a well-known conspiracy monger (at least the fun ones), so why not take a flier on it?

The elephant in the room is that the politics really take a back seat here. There are a few mentions here and there, but they're mostly in the context of well-known alien abduction and government conspiracy tales. So instead of getting some hot takes on the current climate from the context of someone who may or may not believe in lizard people, it ends up being an introductory primer on a bunch of conspiracies I was already aware of. Great for people new to the area of interest, pretty useless for the rest of us.

The best part of the book for me, though, was the mini-memoir Noory includes in the end, telling his story and how he got to the point he's at in his career. This was perhaps the most interesting part of the read for me and might have been more valuable as the framework for whatever the intention was here than anything else.

Overall? I can't recommend it unless you're REALLY into what Noory's into and his mere existence is enough to get you excited. It offers nothing new to anyone already familiar with the topics Noory operates in. It's way too light and introductory for most audiences.

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26 June 2017

Review: Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As someone who has a degree in history and political science, I fully recognize that books like this have limited value. They're written quickly, with little care for accuracy and a lot of reliance on background/anonymous claims, and are often ways for people involved in campaigns to shift blame off of themselves and onto someone else.

With that said, man did this book scratch that schadenfruede itch.

I didn't vote for Trump, but I was very against Clinton as well. This sort of deep dive into what went wrong for Clinton in what should have been a winnable election will certainly be of some value to some people, but a lot of this seems to be an attempt to sort of square the chaos coming from the Clinton campaign with the result. I would have loved to see how this would have read had she won.

As for other criticisms, there is a lot of assumptions of prior knowledge - if you don't know a lot of details about the campaign, you will be lost by some references to bills or situations that do not get a firm explanation. That's a problem for me as a reader, and will be a bigger problem for those who might read this in thirty years fine.

On a whole, though, closer to a 3.5, and more enjoyable for what it stands for than what it is. A better book about the campaign that deals with both sides will come someday, and it will certainly be better.

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16 May 2017

Review: The Names They Gave Us

The Names They Gave Us The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Emery Lord wrote my favorite YA book, so she’s always going to get something resembling a pass for me even if what she does isn’t perfect. When We Collided was a gorgeous emotional roller-coaster, but I can’t help but feel like The Names They Gave Us is a step backward in terms of what Lord has shown she’s capable of and the emotional gravity of her more recent work.

The story follows Lucy, a girl raised by a pastor in a very religious family. Her mother has cancer, her boyfriend wants to put their relationship on pause, and so it’s decided that it will be a good idea for Lucy to spend her summer at the secular summer camp nearby as opposed to the religious camp she has traditionally gone to each year. There, she meets a lot of new kids and counselors and has her horizons widened in ways she never predicted.

The good first: Emery Lord knows how to write a compelling main character who is flawed and interesting without making them unrealistic. Lucy is religious and semi-sheltered, but this isn’t presented in a shameful way, or in a way that shows her to be some sort of freak that we shouldn’t buy into, and that’s fairly refreshing. It makes for an interesting way to create some conflicts without being insulting.

The bad, though? Lord has succeeded, up until now, to putting together narratives that don’t appear to be checkbox worthy, and this just feels like a sort of tolerance tale that we’re along for the ride on. Teen pregnancy? Check. Trans issues? Check. Cultural differences? Check. Worse, Lucy (while, again, not being raised to be intolerant at all) does not give much of an impression about any internal struggle or confliction about any of these issues. On one hand, kudos to her (and Lord) for making it no big deal, but what instead happens is a complete lack of opportunity to demonstrate some empathy for the other side in an era where none exists. And that might be fine on its own, but with the current social situation in YA publishing, it’s difficult not to wonder whether it impacted things.

Overall, a good read, but it had a lot of potential to be better. As an evangelist for The Start of Me and You for years now, I’ll still be pointing to that for the best of YA. This one felt more Open Road Summer, which is a misstep at this point.

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Review: The Names They Gave Us

The Names They Gave Us The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Emery Lord wrote my favorite YA book, so she’s always going to get something resembling a pass for me even if what she does isn’t perfect. When We Collided was a gorgeous emotional roller-coaster, but I can’t help but feel like The Names They Gave Us is a step backward in terms of what Lord has shown she’s capable of and the emotional gravity of her more recent work.

The story follows Lucy, a girl raised by a pastor in a very religious family. Her mother has cancer, her boyfriend wants to put their relationship on pause, and so it’s decided that it will be a good idea for Lucy to spend her summer at the secular summer camp nearby as opposed to the religious camp she has traditionally gone to each year. There, she meets a lot of new kids and counselors and has her horizons widened in ways she never predicted.

The good first: Emery Lord knows how to write a compelling main character who is flawed and interesting without making them unrealistic. Lucy is religious and semi-sheltered, but this isn’t presented in a shameful way, or in a way that shows her to be some sort of freak that we shouldn’t buy into, and that’s fairly refreshing. It makes for an interesting way to create some conflicts without being insulting.

The bad, though? Lord has succeeded, up until now, to putting together narratives that don’t appear to be checkbox worthy, and this just feels like a sort of tolerance tale that we’re along for the ride on. Teen pregnancy? Check. Trans issues? Check. Cultural differences? Check. Worse, Lucy (while, again, not being raised to be intolerant at all) does not give much of an impression about any internal struggle or confliction about any of these issues. On one hand, kudos to her (and Lord) for making it no big deal, but what instead happens is a complete lack of opportunity to demonstrate some empathy for the other side in an era where none exists. And that might be fine on its own, but with the current social situation in YA publishing, it’s difficult not to wonder whether it impacted things.

Overall, a good read, but it had a lot of potential to be better. As an evangelist for The Start of Me and You for years now, I’ll still be pointing to that for the best of YA. This one felt more Open Road Summer, which is a misstep at this point.

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12 May 2017

Review: Experimental Film

Experimental Film Experimental Film by Gemma Files
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s probably apt that the book involving weirdness surrounding film that has gotten the best critical attention is my least favorite.

I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get my hands on a copy of this without having to buy a copy (library systems are both amazing and frustrating), and I was hoping, given the amount of positive press this book has gotten, that it would be up there with favorites like Flicker and Night Film for me. Unfortunately, this fell flat.

The book follows a film critic who heads down a rabbit hole after seeing the screening of a lost film at a festival. The exploration of the film results in a lot of strange finds and a deeper mystery being unraveled as a result.

It’s a tried and true plot, and very reminiscent of Flicker in many regards. For whatever reason, however, the plot didn’t grab me this time. I don’t know if it’s the style Gemma Files chose to write in, or just that I had a lot of trouble buying into the premise in this context. It may be that I’ve read two great books in this sort of subgenre and my bar is becoming too high to clear? I don’t know, but this didn’t do it for me.

Overall, I would still recommend Flicker or Night Film before this, but that doesn’t mean other readers wouldn’t enjoy this more – what tickles me about this subgenre will almost certainly have nothing to do with what might lead you down this path.

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11 May 2017

Review: Pond

Pond Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

If there was a “Jeff VanderMeer Book Club,” I think this would be one of the top ones on the list. Some of his recommendations are spot-on for me, but then there are books like Pond that leave me completely puzzled.

At its core, the book is 20 individual stories that could be taken as a cohesive-yet-fractured whole, and has a common setting to set itself in. As a piece of literature, the structure and format is unique and something I’m not recalling seeing elsewhere, but for me to really be wowed I need to really buy into the story being told, and it just didn’t work. The pieces were too short for me to be engaged for the most part, and the overall tale? Not all that compelling, either, to be fair.

I don’t know if it’s more the format or more the result here that took me out of the story, but it just didn’t work. I know some people enjoy literary for the sake of literary, so if you’re one of those people, this might be a hidden gem for you. Otherwise, though…

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Review: Senlin Ascends

Senlin Ascends Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read a good number of subreddits about books, specifically fantasy and sci-fi. Among the books reddit loves? Blindsight by Peter Watts, a book I did not enjoy for a lot of reasons. Another one that was brought up again and again? Senlin Ascends, which involves a very large tower and a man seeking out his lost wife.

I am equally puzzled as to why people love this book, as it has a lot of interesting ideas but is so fatally flawed it almost completely failed to hold my interest throughout. Senlin moves from floor to floor with new characters and challenges, and it’s structured less like a cohesive narrative as much as a bunch of episodes with a tenuous relationship tying them together.

This is a rare case where I don’t have a lot to say beyond “this did not work for me” and it is one I cannot recommend. I also might need to rethink my relying on reddit for these recommendations, as what I’m looking for in books doesn’t seem to relate.

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Review: Available Dark

Available Dark Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second Cass Neary tale, this is notable because a) Jeff VanderMeer recommended it on Twitter and I checked it out on that recommendation b) only to realize a quarter of the way through that this wasn’t actually the first book in the series.

So I read the second one first. Oops.

The good news is that reading this second didn’t take away from much. The book does an excellent job of reintroducing Cass, and the Cass in this book feels a lot more real than she does in the first (almost certainly, I would learn later, due to the events in the first). A result here is that the story here is definitely darker and more my speed, and probably better crafted as well.

I still recommend you read the first book first, but the overall necessity isn’t 100%. The only necessary thing is to check out this series, as it’s definitely a solid read for someone who is not really into the genre on a whole.

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Review: Generation Loss

Generation Loss Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first book in the Cass Neary series, this establishes Cass as a character and all the flaws and problems she faces, both due to her own actions and those of others.

In this debut volume, we learn about Cass’s past as a briefly-important photographer who hasn’t really done much since then, but she is drawn into the search for a reclusive artist that ends up overturning some stones that were better left untouched.

As someone who doesn’t generally read mystery books, I’m surprised at how easily I was hooked into this series, as Cass is a perfect example of a flawed and damaged yet compelling character with some real agency. It’s a book where I felt like almost everything mattered, which is a nice change of pace, and I didn’t feel like the traditional mystery tropes that generally turn me off from the genre were immediately present.

Overall, it becomes a good package. While not my favorite of the three currently-written books in the Cassverse (for lack of a better term), this works as an excellent introduction to the series and has been a book that I’ve recommended to a few people who have loved it.

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Review: Universal Harvester

Universal Harvester Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

As a fan of The Mountain Goats as well as enjoying Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle is making his case in the fiction realm for good with Universal Harvester. The good news is that the quality of the writing here remains strong, but the bad is that the plot itself is a bit of a retread and I don’t feel as if this stakes much of its own ground enough to turn the book into something special.

Taking place in the 1990s, there are videotapes being returned to the local rental store with mysterious scenes recorded onto them. The mystery deepens as more videos have this issue, and the book explores the phenomenon. Granted, in a sense, found video and mysterious film is a big subgenre ticky box for me, so I came into this read not only with high expectations, but a lot of expectations and beliefs about what makes a book like this work.

Universal Harvester works for the genre it’s in, but not so much in this subgenre. Darnielle is too good a writer to fail completely, but the lack of real oomph or urgency in this story is the real issue keeping this book from being something special. I felt, personally, that the things which drove me to the plot of this book were secondary in ways they weren’t in books like Night Film or Flicker, both of which are masterpieces in combining their genre slot with this sort of film mystery. I could have even taken something like The Ring as a point of reference for this book – goodness knows the setting would absolutely lend itself to it – but we didn’t get that.

Overall? A well-written book that didn’t grab me. If it had followed through better on its hook, it would move from good to great.

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Review: Ninefox Gambit

Ninefox Gambit Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the sci-fi “it book” of the moment, getting all the award attention and all the hype.

Reading this on my Kindle, I got it pretty early on – the book just immerses you into this universe immediately and expects you to catch up and catch on by yourself, and I have a lot of respect for that. Then the plot, for me, came to a screeching halt and any reasons I had to care for what was going on was gone. This book ultimately tries to straddle the line between a few science fiction genres, and I do wonder if I’d appreciate this more if I hadn’t read so much in the genre up to this point, but it gets bonus points from the sci-fi intelligentsia for a lot of reasons thus the awards excitement.

This wasn’t bad, but I can’t say it was especially good, either, and had more flaws than positives for me on a whole due to some rough plot construction and an inability, for me, to follow through with the early potential. I can list off dozens of science fiction books better worth your time on a whole. Closer to a 2.5.

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10 May 2017

Review: Kubrick's Game

Kubrick's Game Kubrick's Game by Derek Taylor Kent
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think I’ll start by saying that this is a goofy book. There’s nothing wrong with goofy at all, but the way this book presents itself in contrast with the subject matter provided is just strange. With that said, this was a fun and light romp that ultimately hit a lot of my interest points, resulting in a really enjoyable read.

The story follows a college film student obsessed with Stanley Kubrick. He probably knows more than his professors do on the subject, and is quickly brought in on a “game” created by the director himself. The game involves a bit of a worldwide scavenger hunt, involves some of the great theories of Kubrick’s work, and threatens to uncover some interesting secrets that people in the know might never actually want out.

In terms of a straight fiction tale, as I said – kind of goofy. But when you approach the book as sort of a fun ARG simulation where an author can freely explore a few interests s/he has all at once, it makes a lot more sense. To approach this with that in mind made for a quick and breezy read that, as reveal after reveal occurred, kept me smiling throughout.

This will win no awards, but if you like crazy conspiracies or are a Kubrick nerd, there’s a lot here to enjoy.


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Review: Bird Box

Bird Box Bird Box by Josh Malerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having spent a good amount of time in the last few years in the weird/horror space after decades of avoiding it, the one thing I’ve been surprised by up to this point is how it’s one thing for me to be uneasy or grossed out or whatever by something I read, but not often do I become unsettled or scared. So hello to Bird Box.

The conceit is creepy in and of itself, where people just randomly start going mad and killing themselves and perhaps taking others with them. It’s quickly assumed/figured out that there’s a sort of creature or monster that, when viewed by a person, triggers said madness. Society quickly shuts down, squirreling itself away in homes and only going outside blindfolded or with covered eyes. The story follows one woman who ends up with a group of survivors and how they’re dealing with the situation.

The story is super unsettling because the author just does a great job of putting the fear and uncertainty front and center. Everything is so uneasy and the way the mysteries are sometimes-but-not-fully revealed as time progresses is really brilliant. Rarely did I feel like I had an idea as to what was coming next, and some of the reveals were outright heartbreaking both in terms of how it advanced the story and the result. It’s rare for me to get that sort of response from a book, especially a horror one, so you know this is something special.

I have nothing negative to say at all about this. If you like weird, creepy, unsettling stories? Find a copy of this immediately. I’ve never read anything like it, and it’s one of the better things I’ve read as of late.

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