29 December 2012

Review: The Desert Spear

The Desert Spear
The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett

My rating: 0 of 5 stars

NOTE: I also won a trade paperback edition of this through Goodreads.

I read The Warded Man when it first came out, and really enjoyed it. I didn't have a ton to say about it then, and I had specifically put off reading book two for reasons I can't pinpoint. With book three imminent, I decided to dive in on The Desert Spear, and I'm definitely glad I did.

The book spends a significant amount of time with Jardir, a warlord who believes he is "The Deliverer," the man of myth who will lead the world out of the darkness by defeating all of the demons. Arlen, the Warded Man, probably holds a better claim, but is only declared as such by those who follow him.

The book has a perfectly balanced approach of political intrigue, cultural narration, and basic action. the nearly 600 pages glide by beautifully, give just the right amount of background into the first book, and lead things very easily into the third. For a book that, by its own nature, runs the significant risk of being lost in its own setting, it does a significant job in letting the setting compliment, rather than overwhelm, the narrative. That's a big deal for me. Also, as a reader who tends to dislike nontraditional fantasy on a whole? Nothing here threw me off in the least, it simply works from start to finish. The story is ultimately about the characters, with each significant character being his or her own person, with their own voice and actions. Nothing feels duplicated or half-finished. It's a great achievement.

This has changed from a curiosity to a favorite series, and I'm looking forward to the third volume quite a bit. Definitely a series I recommend for anyone looking for some great fantasy to keep going.

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24 December 2012

Review: Towers of Midnight

Towers of Midnight
Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a lesson in even a great author not being able to completely rescue less than stellar source material all the time.

Towers of Midnight suffers from Middle Book Syndrome in a significant way, even though it's really more the middle of a final book. A lot of this comes through because of the focus on Perrin, a character who's arc always felt stapled on, and who's arc comes to a bit of a conclusion here. I have no real feeling one way or the other regarding warg stories on a whole, but seeing how, say, George RR Martin handles it compared to Jordan (and Sanderson by extension) shows the value and limitations in current literature.

With that said, the focus also shifts back to the Aes Sedai as well as some of the royalty scenarios. Some of my early favorite characters spend some significant time on board, and...well, I hate to say it, but not a ton happens for a lot of people except for Mat's story, which I've come to really enjoy, and the Elayne arc.

It's hard to review this book, quite frankly, because it's clearly an attempt to be a full book even though it's more a middle portion of a book. There's no way that the first Memory of Light volume could have been as successful if these plotlines were intertwined with it, and it's hard to fault anyone involves on an editorial decision to make sure a 2500 page tome doesn't have to be published in one volume as well.

So it's not to say Towers of Midnight wasn't good, or was even bad, but it does show the glaring problems in Jordan's story on a whole, and shows how difficult it is for even a master of the genre to make things right. With so much tied up, though, I am definitely looking forward to the final volume and seeing where everything goes from there.

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21 December 2012

Review: The Unwritten, Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity

The Unwritten, Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity
The Unwritten, Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity by Mike Carey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Unwritten is another comic I started with the individual issues way back whenever and then stopped and now I get to read through again. I'm pretty sure I read through the first four trades individually, so this one especially is interesting in how knowing later plot points really expands the earlier issues.

In this one, we're introduced to Tommy Taylor, the man who, as a child, was the inspiration for a children's book series about wizard (yes, it's a direct Harry Potter riff). The author, however, has gone missing and the series isn't quite complete. And now there's reason to suspect that the real Tommy Taylor is a fraud. The reality, of course, is much more complex.

The series reminds me of Fables a lot, and for good reason - it has a similar narrative flow, and the artwork is really immersive in many regards. Like I said before, there are things even in the first couple issues that reminded me of stuff from what will come in much later trades. It's very intricately written, and hopefully this continues as time goes on - my recollection of certain plot arcs are a little hazy at this point, but I'm looking forward to diving back in.

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20 December 2012

Best Music of 2012

Another year gone. My total reliance on Spotify means that I was both exposed to and purchased more music this year than I probably have in some time. This means that I either discovered more good music than ever before, or that this was just an exceptional year musically. I definitely feel like any of the first eleven albums could have theoretically been my number one in other years, which is ridiculous. Anyway, some of my favorite tracks are on a public playlist on Spotify for you, and if you think I missed anything, let me know in the comments. 1) Alt-J - An Awesome Wave: The winner of the Mercury Prize (or whatever they're calling it right now), this is the sort of weird hybrid alternative rock that gets me excited. I've been stuck on this album nonstop for a good six weeks with no sign of stopping. The sign of a great, long-lasting album for sure. Songs: "Breezeblocks," "Something Good," "Fitzpleasure." 2) Future of the Left - The Plot Against Common Sense: We now have three albums from the lead singer/songwriter of mclusky's newer band, and each album has been better than the one before. While I'm not sure Future of the Left has eclipsed mclusky for me, this album, which is ridiculous and abrasive and fun and crazy all at once, is the closest they've come yet. Songs: "Robocop 4 - Fuck Off Robocop," "Goals in Slow Motion," "Beneath the Waves an Ocean." 3) Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur: Too often albums that get released early in the year get overlooked, and this seems to happen to Kathleen Edwards constantly. In an album where she hangs up the twang a bit in favor of a more straightforward singer/songwriter rock sound, it works really well. The individual songs in particular are some of her best, and the whole is as good as the pieces. Songs: "Change the Sheets," "Mint," "Sidecar." 4) Punch Brothers - Who's Feeling Young Now?: While I've gotten significantly addicted to roots and bluegrass music over the last year or so, the musician I keep going back to the most is Chris Thile, who continues to take traditional bluegrass sounds in really unique directions. The newest Punch Brothers album would fit right in on alt-rock radio were they not afraid of mandolins. Songs: "This Girl," "Patchwork Girlfriend," "Movement and Location." 5) David Byrne & St. Vincent - Love This Giant: I guess I like David Byrne - he's probably a little too artsy for my tastes, and Talking Heads weren't my favorite. St Vincent's first album was a revelation for me, but her more recent material has left me cold. Put the two of them together, though, and you get a weird, percussive, jazzy, worldly album that caught me by surprise. It's hard to pick individual songs out, merely because the whole is really the star. Songs: "Who?," "Weekend in the Dust." 6) Father John Misty - Fear Fun: Father John Misty is the name/group of a former drummer for Fleet Foxes. I expected breezy, atmospheric folk music and instead got some surprisingly fun rootsy performances instead. An overlooked gem. Songs: "Teepees 1-12," "Well, You Can Do It Without Me." 7) David Wax Museum - Knock Knock Get Up: My favorite mexicano-folk hybrid band for sure, their newest album has some of the best songs they've written so far, and is absolutely the best cohesive unit they've put together. So many of these songs should propel them to stardom if there was any justice in the world. Songs: "Leopard Girl," "Harder Before It Gets Easier," "The Rumors Are True." 8) Scars on 45 - Scars on 45: The worst band name I've heard in some time, and with a glossy sheen that would normally turn me off, instead I ended up with an album of what would probably be classified as adult alternative with some of the most addictive songs I heard this year. So polished, so excellent. Songs: "Warning Sign," "Burn the House Down," "Give Me Something." 9) Jenny Owen Youngs - An Unwavering Band of Light: Jenny Owen Youngs harkens back to the rocker chick era that I was really, really into for a while. She's a little sassy, a little angry, and her songs are super catchy. At the end of the day, that's all I'm looking for, and this album is the first one that she's put out that has truly come together as a whole for me. Songs: "Love for Long," "Pirates," "Born to Lose." 10) The Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth: John Darnielle is one of the more prolific writers in music today, and Transcendental Youth, after 20+ years of creating music, have put together what might be my favorite album. It's mature songwriting with some complex instrumentation to go along with the already-complex themes we're used to. An excellent album. Songs: "The Diaz Brothers," "Cry for Judas." 11) Paws - Cokefloat: This is an album I only decided to listen to because the album cover was so goofy. It turns out that this is a great, angsty, 1990s-alt-rock throwback, and is largely what I expected Yuck to be a few years ago. Songs: "Pony," "Get Bent." 12) Sleigh Bells - Reign of Terror: While I take issue with Sleigh Bells polishing up the blown speaker aesthetic, the fact remains that Reign of Terror is the same loud wall of noise that got me interested in them to start. A worthy follow up to their debut. Songs: "Demons," "Comeback Kid." 13) Metric - Synthetica: This is the first album on the list that I hate is so low. The album is a great, cohesive unit with some of the best songs Metric has ever put out. Between this and their prior album, they're on quite a roll. Songs: "Synthetica," "Youth Without Youth," "Breathing Underwater," "Speed the Collapse," "Lost Kitten." 14) Earlimart - System Preferences: I apparently own a number of Earlimart albums. I say "apparently" because I cannot remember a thing from any of them, but when I fired System Preferences up, I was immediately caught up in the indie melodies and great songwriting. A surprising, rock-solid entry. Songs: "Shame," "Get Used to the Sound." 15) Grizzly Bear - Shields: Grizzly Bear, a band I liked more for their singles than their albums, got some notoriety this year with their New York Times interview stating, among other things, that their music was sounding "too vanilla," not accessible enough. I'd call Shields their most accessible piece yet. It's indie rock at its stereotypical best, but without being over the top. Songs: "Sleeping Ute." 16) The Belle Brigade - The Belle Brigade: I don't know what prompted me to pick this up, but if you're looking for anthemic adult alternative, I can't think of a lot of better options. Songs: "Belt of Orion," "Where Not To Look For Freedom." 17) Cat Power - Sun: Cat Power is another artist that I've liked intermittently. Sun is a change in tune for her a bit - a little more electronic, a little less folksy. For me, it absolutely worked. Songs: "3, 6, 9," "Ruin." 18) The Dandy Warhols - This Machine: One of my all time favorite bands put out an album I frankly didn't expect, given the oddities of the last few they've released. I won't say it's back to form for them, but it's pretty close. Songs: "Rest Your Head," "SETI vs. the WOW Signal." 19) Spirit Family Reunion - No Separation: I saw this folk band open for David Wax Museum last December and fell in love with them almost instantly. Their debut album is an old time folksy sing-a-long with a ton of heart behind it. Songs: "One Hundred Greenback Dollar Bills," "I Am Following the Sound." 20) Anya Marina - Felony Flats: I can't say that this is a normal album, as it has a lot of different influences throughout - rock, pop, electronic - but for someone who's singer-songwriter work was great, this was a welcome shift. Songs: "Believe Me I Believe," "Notice Me." Other highlights, in no particular order: Dinosaur Feathers - Whistle Tips ("Young Bucks") Muse - The 2nd Law ("The 2nd Law: Unsustainable," "Madness," "Panic Station") Sara Watkins - Sun Midnight Sun ("When It Pleases You") Two Man Gentleman Band - Two at a Time ("Prescription Drugs", "Tikka Masala") Ben Folds Five - The Sound of the Life of the Mind ("Draw a Crowd") The Avett Brothers - The Carpenter JJAMZ - Suicide Pact Brendan Benson - What Kind of World Carolina Chocolate Drops - Leaving Eden First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar M. Ward - A Wasteland Companion Garbage - Not Your Kind of People Memoryhouse - The Slideshow Effect Hospitality - Hospitality Kelly Hogan - I Like to Keep Myself in Pain Magnetic Fields - Love at the Bottom of the Sea Mumford & Sons - Babel Old Crow Medicine Show - Carry It Back The Shins - Port of Morrow Sofia Talvik - The Owls Are Not What They Seem The Vespers - The Fourth Wall Tift Merritt - Traveling Alone Other favorite songs: Wiyos - "Yellow Lines" Foxy Shazam - "Holy Touch" The Trillions - "Ctrl+X, Ctrl+V" Ting Tings - "Guggenheim" Schoolboy Q & A$AP Rocky - "Hands on the Wheel" Schoolboy Q & Ab-Soul - "Druggy Wit Hoes Again" Shonen Knife - "Pop Tune" Langhorne Slim - "Found My Heart" Madonna - "Give Me All Your Luvin'" Psy - "Gangnam Style" Civil Twilight - "River" Ben Gibbard - "Dream Song" Sarah Jaffe - "Talk" Sara Barielles - "Sweet As Whole" Regina Spektor - "Don't Leave Me" The Most Loyals - "Shrinking Violet" Mr Little Jeans - "Runaway" Of Monsters and Men - "Little Talks" Churchill - "Change" Cooly G - "Trouble" Azure Ray - "We Could Wake" Audra Mae - "Little Red Wagon" Fun - "We Are Young Great Lake Swimmers - "Easy Come Easy Go" How to Destroy Angels - "Ice Age" Jack White - "Love Interruption" John Cale - "Scotland Yard"

19 December 2012

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can't remember the last time a book grabbed me and immersed me quite the way Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell did. This wasn't a book that I was necessarily in a rush to read until I saw a) that the BBC was making a miniseries out of it and b) so many of my friends immediately began raving about how good it was.

So I dove in. What I thought was going to be a fairly standard fantasy novel ended up being so much more. It's still fantasy, but it has elements of Infinite Jest, The Prestige, all sorts of fairy tales, European history...it's no surprise that the book took nearly a year to finish.

Ultimately, the book is an alternate history of England (and, in a sense, Europe) where magic is real and magicians exist. Norrell is one of these magicians and has made it rather difficult for magic to be practiced, and Jonathan Strange, who arrives and also practices magic. The book covers the rivalry that forms and the inevitable results of it.

What's great about this book? Pretty much everything. I could nitpick here and there for sure, but the sober historical analysis (it reads like a history book in many ways) combined with the short scenes that merely add some flavor to the overall text, to some of the more exciting exchanges throughout, to not really knowing anyone's real allegiances or whether they're "good" or "bad" or whether any of that really matters? Everything about this book was just really well-executed, and kept me hooked.

A book never takes me a week to finish, but it's that dense and that attention-grabbing that I had to take my time with it, so to speak. It really deserves all the accolades it has received over the years, and it's really someone everyone with some time and energy should check out.

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12 December 2012

Review: The Cassandra Project

The Cassandra Project
The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5, I think. I love first contact novels, I love government conspiracies, and The Cassandra Project combines both together for a fairly quick novel. It's not going to win any writing awards, for sure, but as a quick bit of riveting escapism, I'm glad I grabbed this.

The book takes place in the near future, where NASA is underfunded as is the rest of the government as the nation continues to come out of the economic doldrums. Our main character, a high-ranking NASA official, trips up on a piece of information that quickly unravels into a far-reaching conspiracy involving former presidents, a billionaire working on a rocket of his own, and unwitting astronauts.

The book comes out of nowhere with the conclusion, and I had to laugh when we finally came to the payoff, and the ride to get there was almost a little too long, but given the fast clip of the dialogue and action, along with the interesting future history that the book sets up on and off, it was ultimately worth the trip.

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11 December 2012

Review: The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't by Nate Silver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nate Silver became a household name for good in this past election season thanks to his FiveThirtyEight blog, which relies on some complicated statistical analysis carried over from Bayesian theories as well as his work with Baseball Prospectus. Naturally, he wrote a tome of a book about statistics, and it's about as excellent as you would expect.

The book is mainly about statistics and probability. A lot of history of different perspectives from sports and science and even gambling is where the book finds most of its strengths, and as a person who loves data and can't get enough of it, it's got plenty of (but could have used more) graphs and information to help bolster the information. It's not too heavy, and it's not too light, either - at least for me, it hit the sweet spot of both what I was looking for and what I could handle. Very readable and very interesting.

If there are any drawbacks, it might be that his sources leave a lot to be desired in some areas, especially in issues of political import. Someone who knows a lot about the topic might find this too light. Someone expecting a political treatise will certainly be disappointed.

With all that said, however, it's a solid entry in the social/popular science books, and it's a good reminder as to what I like about Silver and his analysis.

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09 December 2012

Review: The Gathering Storm

The Gathering Storm
The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I knew there was a good story in here somewhere. While I assumed Brandon Sanderson would be able to squeeze something good out of the framework that Robert Jordan put together, I honestly did not expect it to be the riveting, exciting read that The Gathering Storm ended up being.

This book is the first of three books to polish off the Wheel of Time series. Jordan outlined the basic story, wrote some of it, and Sanderson was brought on to finish the rest. What was supposed to be one book became three, and here we are.

The good news? Everything. Sanderson has effectively cut through the weight of Jordan's hyper-descriptive prose style and diversionary tactics and found the coherent, interesting, engrossing story within. The Gathering Storm spends the lion's share of the time with the Aes Sedai, with more time among Rand and his group than we've seen since the early books.

The Aes Sedai situation with Egwene is among the most interesting reading I've had during this series, which is really excellent in part because the Aes Sedai has been the best parts of the Jordan-penned tomes up to this point. Plus, we get a loose end tied up. This is something I cannot recall happening at any time in this series so far. The entire story would be a great read on its own, and I was extremely happy to read this whole section.

Rand, for the first time, is a truly interesting character. The lack of layers and the seemingly incoherent treatment of him disappears completely by the time we get some good time with him. The complexity of Rand and his situation is portrayed less crazy and more manic than it has been, and to excellent results. Plus, Min actually seems useful as opposed to being an otherwise expendable character in the book. The resolution of so much, and the setup for the next book, is a breath of fresh air.

I have my issues with the Thom and Mat storyline to a point, as it almost feels as if it was thrown in simply to throw it in, but it was so good - especially in the town with the dice game - that I find it hard to care too much about the relatively short thrift it was given. We'll see where the next book goes with it.

Either way, in a series I've at times liked but never loved and mostly hated? This was great, and it really firms up Brandon Sanderson as really a master of what he does. It's stunning that he took this jumbled mess and turned it into something that I'm actually excited to read the next volume of - something that hasn't happened in a significant way so far, if ever.

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05 December 2012

Review: Necromancing the Stone

Necromancing the Stone
Necromancing the Stone by Lish McBride

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A surprise gem for me was Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, about a kid thrown into the world of necromancy and werewolves and what have you. It was fun without being too goofy, campy without being tiresome, and was equal parts humorous and interesting. I have been eagerly awaiting the sequel since I finished Necromancer a couple years ago.

The unfortunate news is that Necromancing the Stone cranks the camp up to eleven, in part because it doesn't feel like the book has a ton of places to go. The book deals with the aftermath of Necromancer, eternal souls, werewolf covens, and all of it feels more thrown together than cohesive.

This is not to say the book doesn't have its moments. There are definite laugh-out-loud scenes, Douglas's minion, Minion, steals pretty much every scene he's in (the character reminds me a lot of Zap Brannigan's right hand alien in Futurama). It just doesn't do a solid job of continuing the story in a way that I think readers would care about.

I am looking forward to seeing what else Lish McBride has up her sleeve, because she's got a lot going for her overall. I'm just not sure this continuing storyline is it.

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03 December 2012

Review: Three Parts Dead

Three Parts Dead
Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book, a book with a ton of good buzz and reviews, but it also finally helped me understand why I struggle with urban fantasy so much.

Here's the deal: Tara is a necromancing craftsman who is essentially investigating a murder and ends up embroiled in a rather elaborate situation involving cults, gods, gargoyles, and all sorts of bad stuff. It starts to fall on her very quickly to make things right before it's too late.

The book is a fantasy, and a good one at that. The issue, for me, is that urban fantasy almost always (for me, at least) turns into a mystery book. This probably has more mystery/procedural elements to it than your standard fare, but even The Rook, which I loved, was a mystery in theory with fantastical elements. As I tend to gravitate away from mysteries, it's not shocking that most urban fantasy turns me off as a result. Compare this to your standard sword-and-sorcery tome, or something with a traditional fantasy setting. It's different.

This one works, though. Tara's a great character, it has some awesome scenes involving the legal system of the city, and it sets up very well for a sequel I'm excited to look up. It's a new book that's worthy of the praise it's gotten so far, and it's definitely worth your time and energy.

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29 November 2012

Review: The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs - and Who Will Take It

The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs - and Who Will Take It
The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs - and Who Will Take It by Sean Trende

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If anyone is looking for a quick gift to get me, a hardcover copy of this would be nice. While I read a good deal of nonfiction, this may be the best, most indispensable book on electoral history and politics I've read in some time, and definitely the most important one in the last few years.

Sean Trende, a writer for Real Clear Politics and their chief political analyst, take a close, statistically-based look at the history of electoral partisan politics over the last few generations, and its applications to current trends and campaigns. For a short book (a little over 200 pages), it's incredibly exhaustive, relying on hard vote counts as well as pre-election and exit polling. It talks about a lot of the assumptions about electoral shifts, majorities, and why so many predictions ultimately fall flat.

Especially with the upheaval we've seen over the last few cycles, it provides a lot of insight into how the electorate works and what the trends might (and might not) mean. If elections and demographics are of any interest whatsoever, this needs to be at the top of your reading list, for certain.

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28 November 2012

Review: Knife of Dreams

Knife of Dreams
Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm officially at the end of the Jordan-penned Wheel of Time books, and I really can't say anything new about the experience. I've rated this low because it was, again, an experience lacking much in the way of joy or excitement or anything resembling basic interest.

The good:

* The book actually abruptly begins to resemble something that has an endpoint. Characters are actually acting in a way that resembles a goal! The cynic in me wonders if it was due to Jordan's declining health, but still, it was good to see.

* Action! Things occur in the book that progress the plot in meaningful, interesting ways. Granted, those scenes are roughly 5 pages long and there are only a handful of them, but hey, action!

The meh:

* I knew about the one big "spoiler" here regarding Rand's condition, but I didn't know the how. The how was extremely disappointing and anti-climactic, and almost comes across as sort of an afterthought. The fact that we barely see Rand again afterwards doesn't help.

The bad:

* Most everything else. Intrigue and commotion within the Aes Sedai is handled kind of ham-handedly, and the organization toward conclusion is thus left really stilted, since we've had so many books in a row with so much filler that it's difficult to care about what happens to so many people.

Plus, with all the hints that Rand is the guy who's important here, the fact that he's had a role that has been little more than a glorified extra for the last few books? Doesn't help much. I get that the books shifted from being centered around him to being centered around those who are centered around him, but...

The Brandon Sanderson ones are up next, and I'm a big fan of his, so it will be interesting to see if he can fix what's broken.

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21 November 2012

Review: Who Could That Be At This Hour?

Who Could That Be At This Hour?
Who Could That Be At This Hour? by Lemony Snicket

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I definitely consider myself a fan of Daniel Handler in all his iterations. As of late, to be honest, I've found his Handler-penned fiction to be the best part, although my love of the Series of Unfortunate Events knows few bounds. The Lemony Snicket character comes from those books, and has taken a bit of a life of its own - Snicket has written a few non-Series titles (including two very entertaining picture books), and this new series is back in the, uh, traditional Snicketverse.

It's just okay. I'll put that out there. While the Series books were fun because it was all a little absurd and the characters were really fun, this is more of a traditional mystery that stars a character we already know - in a way, it's like The Fourth Bear is to the Thursday Next books: nice to have, a good enough time, but hardly essential. As this is somewhat of an origin story for Snicket as well, we're lead on a wild goose chase of sorts.

That's ultimately what hurts this book for me. It's good enough, I suppose, but it lacked that sort of joy and fun that the Series had. It certainly tries to regain that magic from time to time, but ultimately fell short in a few ways.

Not a bad read per se, but certainly not one I'll be clamoring to revisit, either. Unfortunate.

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18 November 2012

Review: Various Positions

Various Positions
Various Positions by Martha Schabas

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Every so often you pick up a book because of a random recommendation you read somewhere. You read the book, tear through it, even as you're making faces about how weird and dark and kind of bad it is, and yet you read on, not so much because it's a trainwreck (even though it is) but more because you end up kind of puzzled about how this came to be to begin with.

Thus is Various Positions, which is truly a cross between the show Bunheads and the movie Black Swan, with some truly destructive stuff going on throughout. We follow Georgia into ballet academy - only a freshman, she's pretty naive about the world around her, and her peers don't exactly help the situation. As she experiences a sexual awakening of sorts, and not a good kind (but not really a bad kind, either, to be truthful), her whole world as she knows it comes down around her.

I don't want to say this book was inappropriate, because that's the wrong word. A lot of inappropriate stuff happens in this book, and it's sad as opposed to played for anything else. What's worse is that it's the worst kind of inappropriate - the kind where bad things happen to people, and the only ones who face any real, clear, lasting consequences for their actions are the people not doing the bad deeds, but the victims of them. Worse, the key plot point is telegraphed very early on, and yet takes a turn to the bad in a way that...I don't know. It's not good.

I don't know. Avoid this one if you can, it's probably not what you think and almost certainly not what you want it to be. Chalk this one up as one I read so you wouldn't have to.

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17 November 2012

Review: The Obamas

The Obamas
The Obamas by Jodi Kantor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not someone who necessarily admires or likes the first family politically, so picking this book up came more from the interesting media feedback that came about upon its release than anything else. Especially after being disappointed in the election results, a little something to read about four more years of the Obamas can't be a bad choice. Interestingly, this book ended up providing an entirely different perception of both Barack and Michelle than I anticipated it would, and the book actually ended up being a valuable use of my time.

The key point the media appeared to prey on was this idea that Michelle Obama came across as more of the unfortunately stereotypical angry black woman. I'll be honest - not only does Michelle Obama not come across that way in the book, but she actually comes across as incredibly well-meaning and sympathetic. Her concerns are portrayed as incredibly relevant and well-thought out, she is brought across as the anchor of that family who shows deep care for her husband and children. While the general media perception of her seems to be a more driven, stern character, those lines are softened considerably in the detailed look at her life in the spotlight.

That contrast becomes even more apparent when placed against her husband. While Barack Obama certainly had some missteps during the first term, and perhaps misunderstood and underestimated the challenge the population and Congress would give him, incompetence was not the word I would have generally used to describe him in most areas. Unfortunately for the president, this book shows him to be wildly out of touch with the country he governs, with the expectations of the office he holds, and shows a rather disengaged, disappointed man who is holding an office much larger than he can perhaps handle. Reading this post-election makes it that much more stunning, and perhaps a little disconcerting.

This isn't a partisan book by any means - if anything, the classic New York Times liberal lean comes through from time to time in the descriptions of certain events that occur during the times observed. The book, however, is also a very solid look at two people we really know surprisingly little about given their status in the country. I wish more people had read it before the election, and I think more people should read it now after the fact.

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13 November 2012

Review: After the Golden Age

After the Golden Age
After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I generally don't do mystery books. I find them to be a little more contrived than necessary, and it just doesn't work for me. After the Golden Age is sort of a mystery, but more along the lines of a comic book in prose form, similar to Soon I Shall Be Invincible, while having some mystery elements like Powers (but not quite as good).

Anyway, Celia is the daughter of superheroes, but has no powers herself. She teamed up with the supervillain of the story in her teenage years mostly to irritate her father, and now she's an adult working for the district attorney. There's an ever-brewing battle between the super factions, and there's also a seemingly unrelated kidnapping/theft ring in play, and Celia's somehow ended up in the center of it.

This book went from being awesome to kind of rough to actually really good over the course of 300 pages. It's well-structured, it drags a bit once the setting and stuff is established, but races pretty well to the finish in the second half. That's not too shabby, and I come away from this liking it a lot more than I thought I would at its lowest point. Definitely worth a read.

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08 November 2012

Review: Professor Gargoyle

Professor Gargoyle
Professor Gargoyle by Charles Gilman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


So I'm on board with anything Lovecrafty at this point, and the fact that a) a middle grade Lovecrafty novel exists that b) is pretty much exactly a book I had started to write a year ago? Well, I can stop being annoyed that my idea got preempted and start reading it.

It's pretty much exactly what you expect - two kids are now going to the newly-opened Lovecraft Middle School, and something's not quite right. There's weird things going on, and there's also Professor Goyle, who's the strangest of them all. We then fall into fun horror tropes, some extra-dimensional stuff, nods to the Great Old Ones, and even a little R'lyehian tossed in for good measure.

While it's pretty good, and a solid not-to-scary introduction to horror as a genre, I can't help but feel like something was missing, or that it might have been aping other stuff a little too much. I enjoyed it enough, but didn't feel strongly about it, either, and I'm not entirely sure why. A strange read, but a decent one.

The Slither Sisters is out in January. I'll be looking forward to trying that one out.

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Review: Batman: Hush

Batman: Hush
Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So after how much I loved Court of Owls, the New 52 Batman trade, a friend recommended I check out Hush. He said it was one of the better Batman books out there period, and so why not? Strike while the iron is hot, right?

Hush does a few things really well. One, it establishes Batman's origin quick and easy - we all know the story, but it's good to know the story for this universe. Two, it then essentially tosses out one villain after another, from the ridiculous Killer Croc to tossing the Riddler out there for a time, and so on. It's a really fascinating way to run with the story, I didn't expect it to have them lined up in a row quite like that. It was a perfect way to introduce a lot of them to me, who only knows them third-hand - it was my second real exposure to Harley Quinn (first in the standard DC Universe), for example, my first non-Moore exposure to the Joker, the first time I have ever even heard of Killer Croc as far as I can remember. All of that was cool to me.

The writing was good, but felt a little forced. I don't necessarily get the artwork, but a lot of people love it and I think it may be more a lack of familiarity with the Batman comics than anything else - that and the fact that my first real exposures were the Moore comics and the Court of Owls, neither of which follow "traditional" comic art models. I definitely enjoyed this, and I spent a significant amount of time with it, but I didn't love it. I did like it better than the Moore versions, for what it's worth.

I'm coming around on Batman, though. I never liked him as a character before, now I'm getting there. I'm wondering where to head next.

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06 November 2012

Review: New Spring

New Spring
New Spring by Robert Jordan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Considering how immensely negative I was about Crossroads of Twilight, going back to a prequel, which one assumes will spend too much time on stuff that doesn't matter, would work out poorly. I was happy to be wrong.

New Spring is mostly about Moiraine and the Aes Sedai. As a 350ish page novel, it means that it has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Much of it is similar to what we saw in the prologue of Winter's Heart and some of the best of the early books regarding understanding and describing the Aes Sedai. There are some truly great scenes here, some nice hints, good callbacks, etc. It's a solid read.

The book certainly does meander, but given the small size of the book, it's held in check. This would work great as a stand-alone, and I almost wish I read it out of publication order in a way, as I might have found some of the overabundance of everything in the recent books more tolerable as a result. I don't know - it kind of speaks to my criticisms of the books on a whole: there's a good story in here somewhere if Jordan could have been bothered to trim away the fat.

I'm not going to say that this actually makes me optimistic for Knife of Dreams, but the series has effectively reeled me back in again, and I suppose that's worth something. What that something is? Your guess is as good as mine.

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05 November 2012

Review: Crossroads of Twilight

Crossroads of Twilight
Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This ranks up there as, contextually, one of the worst things I have ever read.

My frustration with the Wheel of Time books has been clear for a while, but this book seems to get there in a way that none have before:

* We start with a prologue of limited value to anything happening.

* We spent 200+ pages with Mat and Perrin, where they proceed in accomplishing little of interest.

* We spend 200+ pages with the Aes Sedai, who had the only interesting parts of this story outside of Rand in the last few volumes.

* We spend a hair of time with Rand, who is supposedly the star of this story, and only to note that he's now gettin' it on with a few ladies. Excellent, really.

The problem with this book series, and this book in particular, is twofold: one, up to the point we're at, we should care about the characters more, and I really cannot. They all feel rather one-dimensional, not all that complex, and rarely do they act in unexpected ways. Two, the books literally leave nothing to the imagination. Seemingly every detail is excruciatingly described, and often to the detriment of the already-starved narrative. If you don't care about the people being described, and what's happening is of limited importance, why on earth would this level of description be of value to the reader? So much excess, so much waste.

I'm feeling like I missed a key point along the way here. There's clearly some complexity buried within the story here, but who knows if I'll ever find it at this point - perhaps Brandon Sanderson will be able to unlock some of those mysteries, given that I'm two books away from his start on the series. To think that I still have 900 pages or so to get there, however, makes me feel like Lews Therin is in my own head, screaming to get out. And yet I soldier onward...

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Review: Saga, Volume 1

Saga, Volume 1
Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hello, my new favorite comic.

This, like most everything Brian K. Vaughan does, was absolutely brilliant. The story is, at least so far, about two rival beings from warring planets who have fallen in love, have a child, and are now running from the authorities. The authorities have hired all manner of hitmen and such to get them, and that's the bare bones of it.

The book's brilliance comes from so many places. One, the concept is old yet refreshing - it's a gritty sci-fi story with plenty of action, a lot of heart, with some humor and uncomfortableness mixed in as well. The artwork, something I don't always notice when reading comics, is great - eye-catching while being subdued, a complement to the text as opposed to overwhelming the story. The characters that come up are great, too - you get the complexity of everyone very early on, and I can't think of anyone in the comic that I dislike as a character so far even if they're a good or bad guy. That's great writing.

It's weird, yes. It's absolutely different than most anything I've read in comic form up to this point. It's not Promethea weird, it's just unfamiliar, and it may be why it feels so refreshing, but I essentially hated that I had to put it down late the first night I picked it up, and essentially put my evening last night on hold to finish it up. A rock solid, awesome piece that anyone with even a slight interest in sci-fi or comics should pick up.

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31 October 2012

Review: Justice League, Vol. 1: Origin

Justice League, Vol. 1: Origin
Justice League, Vol. 1: Origin by Geoff Johns

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'll just come right out and say it - this is a total Avenger-ization of the Justice League, and I'd accuse it of being an outright ripoff of the films had these individual issues not come out a year before. With that said - awesome.

So I have little-to-no experience with the Justice League in general. I like Wonder Woman, and I know of...some of the others. That's it. So this reintroduces the Justice League members in this rebooted universe, and pretty much acts as a vehicle for that result - the return of Darkseid is really secondary. Anyway, we get the following:

* Green Lantern, who's snarky and witty in ways I didn't really gather from the Darkest Night trade from a while back, and clearly fills a Tony Stark role here.

* Batman, who is Batman.

* Superman, who is really angsty and misunderstood, which I didn't expect and actually makes me want to rush out and get the New 52 versions soon.

* Aquaman, who's highlight is getting a giant shark to eat an alien. Sigh.

* Wonder Woman, who goes full Thor in this one, with the Frozen Caveman Lawyer mannerisms and kind of fun and goofy all at once. Needless to say, I really liked this Wonder Woman.

* The Flash, who I believe is at fault for all of this and is more or less reduced to a "nyah nyah I'm fast" thing, which...I dunno. I don't get the Flash.

* Cyborg, who I had never heard of prior to this.

I mean, it's kind of fun and goofy, which is a nice change from the gritty stuff that's been the hallmark of so much of the superhero stuff I'm reading lately. That doesn't mean I dislike the other stuff, but more that I can embrace the camp. It's fun!

I love that the New 52 exists to kind of give this new gateway. I'm really enjoying this aspect of it.

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30 October 2012

Review: Winter's Heart

Winter's Heart
Winter's Heart by Robert Jordan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Let's get the good out of the way first - the prologue of this? The best 50 pages I've read from Robert Jordan so far, hands down. It was interesting, it actually advanced the story, it took some risks...it was perfect, and I was really, really excited - after two months away from this story, I was psyched to see that things were moving along still, etc.

That was the high point of the book.

Every problem I've had with this series is magnified to ridiculous levels. I swear, if anything of value happened at any point in this book, I may have missed it. There was a quick scene with Mat fighting some golems, and the last 50 pages, as usual, showed some significant upside, but wow is this disappointingly terrible.

I honestly don't know what to say anymore without beating a dead horse. Literally 500 pages could have been excised from this book. If I wasn't so close to the Sanderson ones, and wasn't reading these for a separate blog project, I'd have thrown in the towel.

How does this happen?

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29 October 2012

Review: Grave Mercy

Grave Mercy
Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really can't help it - I'm drawn in by books with great covers, and this might be my favorite YA cover ever. Girl in a flowing dress with a frickin' crossbow?!? How can you not look at this book and say "yeah, this is gonna be awesome," right?

This book was awesome. I loved this so much, it's become an instant classic for me with so much detail and drama and action and a great, different magic system...just a rock solid piece of fantasy literature.

The concept is great. A girl escapes an arranged marriage and is brought into a convent where she is trained to be an assassin. She's given magical powers by the god of death, and is sent to assassinate a member of the high court. It becomes a cat-and-mouse game of violence and treachery, with magic always in the background.

I had one minor quibble, which came at the end and makes sense in the context of the story but felt a little unnecessary, especially for an otherwise great young adult book. It wasn't nearly enough to make me dislike the book, and the sequel simply cannot come out fast enough for me. If you like fantasy, if you like old-style settings, if you like unique magic systems, this is really worth reading. If you don't, read it anyway, because you're just depriving yourself of some great stuff.

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24 October 2012

Review: Office Girl

Office Girl
Office Girl by Joe Meno

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Remember a few years ago, when everyone was getting all crazy about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope? Here's the latest entry in that genre, Office Girl - and it's great!

Jack is a strange 20 something with the requisite strange hobby - tape recording found sounds, essentially. Odile, a college dropout, likes vandalism street art and sex. When they meet at their office (where they both sell Musak systems), they go on happy twentysomething adventures and try to change their world in that happy twentysomething way.

This is effectively Garden State in print, in a lot of ways. A lot of Deep Meanings about life, and it's so hipster it hurts in a lot of ways. And yet, as a tiny little hardcover novel, it's extremely engaging. The characters are actually fairly fun, the messages not too brickbatty, and, while it doesn't throw you any surprises, it's a great read. This one was easily polished off on a two hour plane ride and it was the perfect piece of literary candy.

If you're looking for something a little lighter, you could do a lot worse. This book won't change the world, it probably won't change you, but it's really the perfect diversion, and that's a success in itself.

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Review: The Fox Inheritance

The Fox Inheritance
The Fox Inheritance by Mary E. Pearson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is where I'd spend lines and lines lamenting the fact that it feels like every third young adult book is a dystopian novel, but I'll spare you because I actually really likes The Adoration of Jenna Fox as a strange, different dystopian-style novel with a cool sci-fi hook embedded in it.

The Fox Inheritance is the Matrix Reloaded of young adult books.

So where Adoration sits there all nice and pleasant in its sci-fi mystery/horror, Inheritance takes place way, way in the future. The US is pretty much a mess, and two teens are central to the story - they, like Jenna, have been downloaded onto hard drives, reformed into android-type bodies, and then had their consciousnesses uploaded. They know Jenna is still alive, and they have to find her.

The concept is better than the execution for two reasons: one, the first book, while dark in themes, was light in presentation. This is just dark dark dark all the way through. There's little optimism and less daylight to seep through. This leads us to the second point, which is where the book is just not what you'd expect after reading the first book. This is a dark adventure book instead. That's not a bad thing, but it's different, and that didn't entirely work for me. It's like how Matrix Reloaded was not the cyberpunky action movie that the first one was, but rather the dank, pessimistic side to the story.

I'll probably grab the third one when it comes out, but I'm not sure where to go from here. I suppose we'll see.

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23 October 2012

Review: The Woman Who Died A Lot

The Woman Who Died A Lot
The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I honestly can't remember at this point why I had originally picked up The Eyre Affair, but all I know is that it very quickly became a favorite book of mine, and every entry into the Thursday Next universe has been mostly fun.

After what I felt was a bit of a misstep in One Of Our Thursdays is Missing, The Woman Who Died a Lot brings things back around in a good way. We have references to the world galore, a lot of old characters back and involved, a few fun curveballs, pretty much everything I've come to expect from Fforde.

The flaws are few - it takes a little longer to get rolling than most of his books, and the shift into Thursday's new role is...a little much for me, but this doesn't detract from the overall enjoyment of the book and the story. With the knowledge that we have yet another one coming soon? Even better.

I'm glad I found this series and that I'm still reading them - especially interesting as a reader who generally dislikes mysteries (and that's where Thursday Next is rooted). I'm not sure where we'll go from here, but that's always kind of been the fun of it all, right?

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22 October 2012

Review: Something Strange and Deadly

Something Strange and Deadly
Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Zombie Steampunk Adventure! Throw in some sparkly vampires and we might be winning young adult bingo!

In yet another YA book where concept leaps well ahead of execution, we have Something Strange and Deadly, where Eleanor has to balance between the life her mother (and society) expects of her against trying to save her brother who may or may not have been turned by "the Dead," who are rising in Philadelphia and are causing all sorts of problems.

The book has a ton going for it - I love the Victorian setting, the steampunk elements are clear but subtle, and it's truly a zombie book for the ladies. The problem is that there are so many great parts to the book, and yet the whole just felt lacking. It's not quite the problem we get with so many steampunk/Victorian books where the plot acts as a vehicle to serve the setting, but it's honestly a strange mix (zombie and steampunk) that has some fantasy/sci-fi thrown in for good measure that things just...don't add up.

This is a good book. It's not a great book, even if it had flashes. I'll likely seek out the sequel, it's just a book with some problems.

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19 October 2012

Review: Wonder Woman: The complete History

Wonder Woman: The complete History
Wonder Woman: The complete History by Les Daniels

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is sort of a coffee table book-style treatment of the history of Wonder Woman, both as a character and of the people who created her. In some ways, it's great - in others, kind of lacking.

The book is great in the respect that it has a lot of photos of memorabilia, of different Wonder Woman publications and such that probably wouldn't see the light of day unless you were a heavy collector. It also tosses some older comics into the context of the times, which is kind of neat - especially for a superhero like Wonder Woman who has gone through so many incarnations.

The interesting parts for me were the parts discussing how Moulton created Wonder Woman, and how much of a foil for much of his studies and ideology regarding feminism and sexuality Wonder Woman truly was. I'd love to read a much larger take on that someday, but starting there and then discussing the context of the Lynda Carter show and the pressures that future writers faced, it was very interesting.

The downside is in two places. For one, it's much less about the Wonder Woman story and more about the story of how the Wonder Woman story came to be. Those hoping for a history of the actual saga are going to be missing something. The other downside is that it effectively ends right around the Crisis on Infinite Earths even though the book was written in the mid-2000s. There's plenty of opportunity to expand, especially during the Rucka era, that would have been beneficial.

Regardless, a good entry-level piece about one of the more iconic heroes out there. Worth a look if you're interested in this sort of thing.

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18 October 2012

Review: The Emperor's Soul

The Emperor's Soul
The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After being somewhat disappointed in Legion, I was surprised to see my copy of The Emperor's Soul show up at my doorstep early. I think it's due out in a few weeks, but I decided to read it right away, and I'm very glad I did.

It takes place in the Elantris-verse and pops us right into the middle of a story, where a Forger (someone who uses magic to make forgeries and change aspects of people and items via their souls) is captured and enlisted to essentially fix the soul of the Emperor. What is typically a two year process? She has 100 days.

The book is riveting from the get-go, it's in a universe that resembles Elantris but uses another unique magic system - no one is better at creating original magics the way Sanderson is - to get the job done. It's really a great, great story that is short, but doesn't feel short. Nothing is wasted, nothing is lost.

A beautiful, wonderful read. Everyone who likes good fantasy should seek this one out.

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16 October 2012

Review: The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book.

I wanted to enjoy it because I figured the bad reviews might be focused more on how this isn't really Harry Potter and it's her first adult book and etc etc. The inner contrarian in me was excited to find a gem within a book that everyone is reading and no one is especially excited about.

To be charitably blunt, this book isn't very good.

The book follows a group of people following the passing of one of the members of town government. The book spends 500 pages with them coping with the death, with each other, and with the casual vacancy within their town's board. That's...essentially it. Some things happen to people, they supposedly grow and change, and...yeah. That's it.

Here's the chief problem with this book, something I've defined in my head as the Perotta Paradox. Named after Tom Perotta, it's about how a book has a great concept, drops you right in the middle of it, and then proceeds to go absolutely nowhere for nearly all the book before ending somewhere in the middle of these people's lives with no good resolution. Tom Perotta is excellent at this - I've read nearly all his books and only two of them have truly escaped this problem in a significant way.

Rowling's problem, in this book, is that it takes 350 pages for the what - in this case, the death - to translate into something that creates a conflict worth caring about (without giving it away, the message board). The 350 pages preceding this point, in a better book, should establish why we should care about these characters, and this is ultimately where the book fails. I tried so hard to find that hook because, hey, after Harry Potter, JK Rowling deserves the benefit of the doubt, right? Unfortunately, that payoff never really comes about, instead we're forced into bad sex and bad accents and too much cursing and too many people you ultimately read to escape from, not read more about.

It's especially difficult because you know there's a good storyteller capable of solid, nuanced, complex stories in there. This book tries to do that over a single volume, but falls flat most of the time. It's unfortunate and disappointing, and I really, really hope that the next chapter for Rowling is better.

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15 October 2012

Review: Dragonswood

Dragonswood by Janet Lee Carey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've read a good deal of fantasy books over the years, and a flaw in a lot of the stuff I grew up on is how it all begins to bleed together. It's not to say that you're read one sword and sorcery novel, and thus you've read them all, but rather that there needs to be more there to set things apart.

Everything I've heard about Janet Lee Carey's Dragon's Keep is good to great. Dragonswood is billed as a companion of sorts, which means I've already dove into this series in the wrong order. The good news is that you really wouldn't know there's another book in this universe. The bad news is that you might not remember it anyway.

Tess is seeing visions, and is forced to flee her village. She runs intoa warden who begins protecting her somewhat, and then all the details about fey children and perhaps unspoken changeling stories begin.

The book resolves itself rather nicely, all things considered. It's not poorly written by any means, it's just...there. It was a perfectly viable, good read that I enjoyed while reading it and then more or less forgot about directly afterward. Perhaps knowing Dragon's Keep might have helped, or perhaps I just need to be the age where interchangeable fantasies don't bother me as much. Either way, this didn't quite hit the mark.

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14 October 2012

Review: Also Known as Rowan Pohi

Also Known as Rowan Pohi
Also Known as Rowan Pohi by Ralph Fletcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Now for a surprisingly fun one! This is, in a sense, the story of George P. Burdell for a YA audience, but it ends up being a story that's a lot more fun than it should be; telling a story about identity, accepting oneself for who you are, and more.

Rowan Pohi is the name of a kid who wants to go to an elite prep school. The issue is that the kid doesn't exist - Bobby and his friends made him up completely, and submitted his application. It then turns out that Rowan gets into the prestigious academy, and Bobby decides to go behind the backs of his friends and enroll at Whitestone as Rowan. It gives him a new lease on life, but also requires a lot of lying and finagling to make work.

The book is short, paced perfectly. It's funny (from silly stuff like the friend named "Big Poobs" to the antics Bobby gets into in an attempt to keep his double life), and a lot comes about that ends up being both instructive and inspirational. For a small book, it packs a pretty hefty punch, and it's hard not to be smiling through most of it.

It's certainly not inspiring or empowering the way a Stargirl might be, but it's a book that has a lot of heart and a lot going for it without trying too hard and without relying on after school special tropes, which is ultimately a rare quality these days. It's a quick and fun read that people might walk away with a little something extra at the end of the day. Highly recommended.

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Review: The Storm Makers

The Storm Makers
The Storm Makers by Jennifer E. Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jennifer E. Smith is an author I know because of her awesome YA book The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight. Her doing a weather-based fantasy for middle readers? Count me in, I thought! Unfortunately, the book didn't meet my expectations.

The concept is great - we learn that there are people capable of controlling the weather, and one of our two child protagonists is one of them, and may be one of the strongest yet. What results is a power struggle between the Storm Makers of who will run the show and how the powers they wield will be used.

This has some passing similarity to Eye of the Storm by Kate Messner, which came out a few months after this and takes a more scientific approach in its futuristic, weather-controlling story. As a result, it ends up being a better, more consistent, and more suspenseful book. The Storm Makers feels like has less at stake, is more fantastical, and might be a little overlong on its own, never mind in comparison to Eye.

It fits a niche well enough, but it's not the best in its class, or even overall. It's worth a read for this specific genre if you're into it, but it's hardly what I'd consider essential.

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Review: Blackbirds

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Angry Robot continues to print some of the more interesting fantasy/sci-fi out there, and Blackbirds is right there with some of the better ones I've read of late.

The story follows Miriam, who has the power to see how someone will die if she touches them. She can't really change how it happens, but she knows. Then she touches someone who, in his last words, says her name. So now Miriam needs to try and fix the problem that she has apparently created for this guy.

Miriam is a great, fun character. She's brash and angry, she can fend for herself and then some. The concept is not absolutely new, but it is interesting and is handled in a really good way. Wendig as an author may rely a little more on profanity and brutality than I would have preferred, but it generally works in the book as well.

The sequel just came out, and I'm a little impatient in getting to it, but I will. It will be interesting to see how the world Wendig set up matches well with the way the first story ended, but this is a pretty awesome way to start things out.

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Review: Jessica Rules the Dark Side

Jessica Rules the Dark Side
Jessica Rules the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A book that I surprisingly really enjoyed (and shamefully so) was Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side, which took the whole vampire in love/vampire princess thing and spun it on its head a little bit.

Jessica Rules the Dark Side is the sequel, and, truly, all it does is make the case that the book really should have ended after the first one.

Jessica is now married to her vampire prince and they live in the castle in Europe. There is then a murder(!) and Lucius may be implicated. Jessica now needs to assert a leadership role as princess to find the killer and hopefully clear her husband's name.

The issue with this book was the amount of time I sat there saying "really?" The first book was fun and cute because it at least gave the appearance of being self-aware, that it was a book that understood the tropes it was working with and reacted accordingly. Rules, however, moves itself very quickly into formulaic supernatural mystery territory and really doesn't get out. It, thankfully, spends some time with the mythology of the vampire families, but it's not enough to drag it out of the doldrums somewhat.

I'm not sure I'll pick up any other books in the series at this point. I'm not convinced that the story has anywhere to go, and that's unfortunate.

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Review: Horns

Horns by Joe Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So I guess I like horror novels now.

Horns is something I read because I loved the concept: a man, after a drunken night out, is apparently literally becoming Satan, horns and all. He's going to solve some unsolved stuff in his life now, and since he can read the worst thoughts of people's minds (or at least prompt them to confess at length with minimal prompting), he may just have the ability to do it.

I'm a huge fan of Locke and Key, the nearly-completed comic series by the same author. I also learned after the fact that Joe Hill is Stephen King's son, which apparently means that twisted, unique ideas are genetic. This is great conceptually, fun to read, and was just the right length.

It's also going to be a movie with Daniel Radcliffe as the lead horned being, which is fascinating. Needless to say, Joe Hill's stuff is immediately hitting my radar as must read now, and this is as good a place as any to start.

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Review: Cold Cereal

Cold Cereal
Cold Cereal by Adam Rex

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I consider myself a fan of Adam Rex in two ways: one, I definitely enjoyed The True Meaning of Smekday, and two, his ideas are always interesting even if his execution feels a little off the mark. Cold Cereal is more the latter.

Cold Cereal is centered around an evil corporate conglomerate attempting to take over the world through cereal. They enslave fey creatures to use as mascots (and worse), and they have grand plans in mind. Two kids, however, are able to see what's going on, and begin trying to stop it.

The book has a lot of positive qualities I enjoyed as an adult. The rabbit, Harvey, is mostly invisible (a nod to the movie of the same name). There's a good deal of Masonic/Illuminati conspiracy involved, and the book spends a good deal of time with different feywild mythologies and Arthurian fables.

As an adult reader, this was great from time to time. As a kid's book, though, it really feels like it's way too out there. The mythology bogs the narrative down, the in-jokes make no sense to the readers this is geared toward, and it ultimately just falls flat. I can't see most kids picking this up and enjoying it, which is really my #1 problem with it at this point. An unfortunate pass.

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Review: Summer of the Gypsy Moths

Summer of the Gypsy Moths
Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

There seems to be a trend occurring in children's and young adult literature lately, and it's one I'm more than a little disturbed by - parents/guardians dying, and the kids trying to hide it.

Summer of the Gypsy Moths is the latest in a seemingly weird string of these books being published recently. Stella lives with her great aunt on Cape Cod, and her aunt has a foster child as well, Angel. The aunt dies, so the kids go to great lengths to hide this fact during their summer to keep themselves from having to be put back in foster care or anything worse.

I'm just going to be honest - I don't understand why this is a good trend. If there's this spate of kids hiding the deaths of their loved ones (and doing so successfully), shouldn't this be one of the bigger news items available right now? I'm confused as to why this is becoming such a trope, and I'm doubly confused that it's Sara Pennypacker (who wrote the Clementine books among others) who is on board. Just strange.

Skip this one. Skip it as fast as you can.

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Review: The Last Princess

The Last Princess
The Last Princess by Galaxy Craze

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a more just world, this would be getting a lot of press as the next Hunger Games, because it's that good. Brutal totalitarian government in a dystopia, check. Girl who kicks serious butt, check. Definitely worth checking out for those reasons alone.

The details make it even more fun - Eliza is a princess in the British Royal family, and the family is destroyed by this revolutionary force following the world essentially falling apart. Eliza somehow escapes, and her only chance at getting things back to normal is to blend in with the enemy and fight it from the inside.

The book is seriously brutal in a lot of ways - much like The Hunger Games, it doesn't sugarcoat the battles, the blood, the death. The payoff, however, is great. There's clear progression for Eliza, and there's a firm sense of justice throughout, which worked well for me.

I don't honestly want to say too much, because I really feel like people should just grab this book and dive right in. I firmly hope this is a new series that catches a lot of readers, because it's rock-solid. I can't wait for the next one.

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13 October 2012

Review: Fenway Fever

Fenway Fever
Fenway Fever by John H. Ritter

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

We really need to talk about the tragedy that is this book.

First and foremost, I get that authors cannot, either for legal or moral reasons, use the real names of current baseball players. I'm fine with that. But to just start trying to ape past players (Billee Orbit for Bill "Spaceman" Lee, a player nicknamed "Beer Can" instead of "Oil Can") is a whole other area for me.

Plus, major, major editorial problems. Runs the gamut from baseball rules gone awry to calling someone the "Worcester Rooster" as he's from Worcester, Massachusetts - a city pronounced "Whiss-ter" and not rhyming at all. It's sloppy.

I was fairly disappointed in this, truth be told. I had low expectations to start and it didn't even meet those. So many good sports books, I'd hate for this to be the one to be picked up with how many flaws there were.

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10 October 2012

Review: Legion

Legion by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite authors, in part because he does big, epic tomes that don't feel too long and involve great, epic ideas that are often thought provoking and are always unique and different.

Legion is no different in the regard that it has a big, epic concept that, if it were real, would shake the foundations of humanity itself, and it relies on an interesting narrative hook (a person with hallucinations that take the form of distinct, fully formed personalities) to get us exploring it. It has some great philosophical diversions wrapped up in a neat, readable package.

My chief complaint is that it's only a novella. At under 90 pages, the idea comes, is executed, and then moves along extremely quickly. By the time you've settled into the story, it's nearly gone. I accept that authors often have a certain amount to say and nothing more, but given that Sanderson has rarely wasted a word even in his 700+ page novels, a tease like this almost feels unfair. It's hard to knock a book for not being enough when most books suffer from being too much, but my one problem with the book is that I just wanted more.

Definitely check this one out. The ebook version is super-cheap, and it's a good, relaxing, fun evening read with some provocative concepts.

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