30 April 2012

Review: Wonder

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Auggie is a boy who's been homeschooled for a his whole life, and he's entering a real school for the first time this year. He and his family are understandibly nervous, since Auggie was born with major facial deformities.

That's the basic setting of Wonder, a book that hits all the right emotional notes while remaining realistic about the cruelty and kindness of young children and the adults that surround them. It's a book that has a message while also having a good, coherent, and worthwhile story.

If I have any complaint, it's that it ties itself together a little too easily and maybe shouldn't have, but considering the age group this is geared toward, I can let that slide. Definitely something everyone should read.

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29 April 2012

Review: Dirty Little Secrets

Dirty Little Secrets
Dirty Little Secrets by C.J. Omololu

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Can we talk about the ridiculousness that this book is for a moment?

So we have a girl. The girl's mother is a hoarder, hardcore, reality-TV-style, so she's naturally embarrassed to have her friends over, her father left, her brother left, her sister is gone, she's all that's left at the house with her crazy hoarder mother. So far so good, right?

Oh boy.

Here be spoilers:

So hoarder mom? She dies of an asthma attack. So what does our intrepid hero do? Cover her up, lest the news reporters come and film the house when the paramedics try to get her out of the house. Girl begins cleaning to clear a spot to get through, girl knows things onto dead mom's corpse, girl goes to school, girl does everything she can to keep dead mom from being found.

As if this wasn't bad enough? Girl goes out on a pseudo-date. Girl finds she really likes boy, gets a little making out done because that's what teenagers do, and decides she knows exactly how to get out of this mess.

By setting fire to the house.

The book ends with this girls secrets going literally up in flames.

Really? Really?!?

I mean, come on. There's a lot wrong with this book, from the poor choices of everyone involved in the story to the blatantly ridiculous reasoning for keeping the mother in the house dead. Then to go out to a party/concert/makeout session and stay out late while a corpse lays in your house, knowing full well your family might stop by and find it? Really?

I have no real problem with suspending my disbelief for any number of fictional titles. I can't help but be confused by how this was ever really okay. It's strange and unrealistic and I'm honestly stunned it got anywhere. Clearly, we're dealing with a talented writer with interesting ideas, but my goodness.

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Review: Tree of Codes

Tree of Codes
Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's first worth noting that this is not so much a book as much as it is a short story experiment. Jonathan Safran Foer took his favorite book, The Street of Crocodiles, and cut out most of the words, leaving nothing more than the words that form his story. It means that there may be pages with only 4 words, or huge, huge gaps, or what have you.

It's a strange read, all things considered. I can't really judge it on literary merit, as it's not really meant to be. I think it's a cool concept that I never need to experience again. It succeeds, but to what end, y'know?

I definitely think people should try to pick this up and read it - it's only 120 pages or so before considering the amount of text excised from the original source material, and it's something that should probably be experienced.

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26 April 2012

Review: The Dragon Reborn

The Dragon Reborn
The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first book I've encountered that mirrors a lot of the complaints that I've heard over the years about the series. This is closer to a 3.5 for a number of reasons - somewhat spoilery if you're not up to this point.

First and foremost, the most obvious thing for me is how relatively slowly this one started out. I had gotten used to Jordan hooking me in early, and it was quite some time before things really got rolling. A lot of this is due to Rand, our hero of the series, not being the central focus of the novel. Thus, this is definitely a sufferer of Middle Novel Syndrome, which may have been intentional given that the series, up to this point, was still believed to be six books long. The book works by the time it ends with Rand being essentially missing for 400 pages, but it's very difficult to stay invested at times given the main point of the series (and the book, which is named for Rand's role, really).

The book wasn't especially lacking in action on a whole - more time spent with the Aes Sedai is always a good thing for me, personally, and it was definitely a plus to see Mat get some solid screen time - I found the scenes where he's being released from the dagger's influence to be solid, and we did finally get to see him rock and roll a bit.

The problem with this one, I think, is just that there was a LOT of exposition to get to something pretty much everyone knew was coming. Rand has clearly been the Dragon since the first book, and you have to wonder whether this drawn out situation was necessary. Given how little I know about what's coming up, maybe that will be explained in more detail as we continue.

To be honest, this is the first time I was outright frustrated by the series. Granted, it's also the third book, which may mean some danger going forward, but I also hope tying up some of these loose ends early with Nynaeve/Egwene and Mat will allow a greater focus into the problem set up by the last few pages of this book. That the last 50 pages or so were so rock-solid gives me a lot of hope, but that hope is starting to be tempered somewhat.

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23 April 2012

Review: Vertical: the follow-up to Sideways

Vertical: the follow-up to Sideways
Vertical: the follow-up to Sideways by Rex Pickett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are many unnecessary sequels in the world, and this is, in some ways, one of them. The sequel to the wine-heavy Sideways, this book takes place 7 years after that book, where Miles the author has made it big thanks to his novel about wine that got picked up and turned into a major, award-winning motion picture.


Part of the charm of Sideways was how down-on-his-luck Miles was, and with Miles being a more pompous rich successful dude this time, a lot of the appeal is lost a bit. Jack feels like more of a cartoon character this time around, which also turns the characterizations around a bit. And the sex scenes in this book in particular were memorably bad. I don't recall them in the first book (although they were certainly there), but yikes.

I have a lot of negative things to say, for sure, but the reality? The book is a fun romp. There's plenty of completely absurd situations our group gets into, there's a lot of wine drinking (as expected), you get a bit of insight into what the post-Sideways conversation must have been like for Rex Pickett (the author of the book). It's good!

If you liked Sideways, this is worth picking up. It's not going to change your world like Sideways may have, but it's definitely a worthwhile follow-up that doesn't detract from the original.

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20 April 2012

Review: The Lifespan of a Fact

The Lifespan of a Fact
The Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is definitely one of the more fascinating books I've read in some time. John D'Agata wrote a piece about a suicide in Las Vegas, and the magazine that was printing it had the general fact-check go through, and it turns out D'Agata had misrepresented, misquoted, and otherwise inaccurately portrayed a lot of what had occurred. He did so out of a more artistic license, insisting he was not a journalist and thus wasn't to be held to those standards, but his fact checker kept going anyway. The book is the article in question interspersed with the fact checker's notes and some back-and-forth between the fact checker and D'Agata.

This was especially interesting in light of the This American Life piece on Foxconn and Apple, where the creator of that segment did a similar thing. It's very interesting to see D'Agata justify his actions, and the fact checker's almost over-the-top diligence in trying to confirm what's being written. It made me both admire and weep for the state of journalism currently.

Definitely worth reading for a variety of reasons, as it's informative, relevant, and entertaining at the same time. There's a lot to chew on from this one.

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09 April 2012

Review: The Book of Drugs: A Memoir

The Book of Drugs: A Memoir
The Book of Drugs: A Memoir by Mike Doughty

My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Mike Doughty did a lot of drugs.

This is one of the things I didn't know about Doughty prior to picking up The Book of Drugs. I also learned that I'm apparently the type of fan he hates - a fan of Soul Coughing who doesn't love his solo stuff. To be fair, the stories he tells of his time with Soul Coughing would likely make me want to forget that time as well, but the story is almost less about Soul Coughing and more about the drugs.

Thus the title, I guess.

The book is more or less a blitz of stories from early in life right up through recent times. The drugs, the drinking, the music, the touring, his point of view of his former band members, his post-Soul Coughing breakdown, etc etc. The stories are really only separated by paragraph breaks, and come at you full tilt. It's quick, but can get a little exhausting at times.

Either way, this book might have limited appeal to those who do not know or care about Doughty or Soul Coughing. It's not an especially good book about addiction, and his stories about being drug addled are not the interesting rock star kind one comes to expect from celebrity memoirs, but the honesty is a plus for the book, not a minus. If it's your thing, pick it up.

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06 April 2012

Review: Divergent

Divergent by Veronica Roth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Divergent surprised me. It's gotten a pretty decent amount of buzz as of late, and with the sequel imminent, I decided to finally pick it up - I didn't have high expectations, because I'm so, so tired of dystopia at this point, but what can you do, right? Thankfully, this book takes the best parts of the dystopian trend, leaves the rest out, and offers up a very strong first book.

The concept works - teens, when they come of age, choose to join one of a handful of "factions" based on personality traits. The problem? Tris doesn't fit well into any of the specific factions - she's Divergent, and that's frowned upon in this world. The story follows Tris as she decides to join the Dauntless faction and learns a bit about what the broader plan is.

The book doesn't bog itself down too too much in the politics and societal stuff that a lot of dystopian fiction does. The book cares a lot less about setting and more about tossing out a fast-paced story. It's very Hunger Games-esque in that regard - we know what we need to know about the broader society, and the details are, as it currently stands, left up to us. It means some questionable mystery setup at times, but it works in the context of this specific plot.

If the book has any flaws, it's that it does not read very much at the age level. It is a very quick read for a nearly-400 page young adult novel, and that's not a bad thing. It works because it has to, and it does work, but those looking for a more immersive experience might be left a little cold.

My assumption is that this will be a trilogy. I'm already anxiously awaiting book two, and I'm very interested to see if Veronica Roth is able to keep things going this well. So far, she's off to a good start.

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01 April 2012

Review: The Dark and Hollow Places

The Dark and Hollow Places
The Dark and Hollow Places by Carrie Ryan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm not sure I've ever felt so let down by how a series ended before.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a great book on all counts. Big fan as a whole. The Dead-Tossed Waves was a solid, although flawed, follow up. This book, unfortunately, feels like it betrayed the good qualities of what came before it by featuring a somewhat pathetic protagonist combined with a love story that ultimately felt shoehorned in and Twilight-esque in its plotting. While complaining about reality in a zombie novel is ultimately futile, at least the first two books felt realistic, while this went off the rails in a hurry.

I think the main problem is not the author or the writing, as both were fine on a whole. I think the problem is more that the concept lent itself to a very cool, concise single volume book that didn't really need further exposition, and each piece added to the story subtracted from the whole. Plenty of long-standing stories with multiple volumes run into this in various degrees, but this felt significant.

Unfortunate. I know the series has been described as a trilogy, and I do hope it's done.

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