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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