24 April 2013

Review: Dreams and Shadows

Dreams and Shadows
Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

C. Robert Cargill wears a lot of hats. He reviews movies, he writes movies, he and I used to argue politics on the internet years ago, and now he writes books. I didn't see his movie Sinister since horror isn't my thing, but it was well regarded, and his debut novel, Dreams and Shadows, was getting even more acclaim than that. So I naturally had to pick it up, and I'm ultimately pretty glad I did. As someone who struggles with both urban fantasy and feywild/changeling stories, Dreams and Shadows succeeds in being solid with both of them.

The plot is deceptively simple. It starts with a boy, Colby, who meets a djinn and gets a wish to see all the creatures in the world. He meets Ewan, who is a boy taken and replaced with a changeling. Their paths never part from that point onward, and the the story quickly becomes one of a lot of different concepts, from fairies to magic to all-out war. It's incredibly ambitious, and it basically works. Things tie together nicely, and the book has more than its share of twists and turns to keep things from looking predictable.

If I have any complaints, it's that the book might feel a little redundant to people with more background in these settings and tropes. It's somewhat fresh to me, and I feel there's a lot of a personal touch to the stories that more than covers for any sameness that might exist. The beginning of the story threw me off for a bit until I figured out what was going on as well, but I ended up being very glad I powered through.

Overall, if you're looking for a new Gaiman-esque fantasy to hold you over, this is a worthy entry into your list of things to read. I don't know what Cargill will be up to next, but I hope more books are part of it.

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22 April 2013

Review: Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell

Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell
Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell by Phil Lapsley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A while back I read a book about the beginnings of computer hacker culture, Masters of Deception. It was a fun, mostly interview-based history of hackers and such, fairly thin but very appealing. A lot of the beginnings of phone phreak culture were also highlighted in the book, but didn't get a ton of play overall.

Then, a few months ago, Radiolab did a podcast/show that highlighted a person who knew how to access the phone system and make calls simply by whistling the correct tones. He, along with many others in the 1960s and 1970s, learned the ins and outs of the AT&T phone network and hacked it to pieces. Exploding the Phone is the story of that movement.

I knew a lot of the basics - blue boxes, the tones and such. What I didn't realize was about how widespread it was, or many/any of the personalities involved. The book is very heavily reliant on interviews with many of the primary phone phreaks, and it provides a really significant and worthwhile insight into the history and culture.

The book is extremely readable, with just enough technical information without overwhelming us with a lot of data and specifics that would only confuse things. If it has any real flaws, it's that the damage and the illegality of the situation too often takes a back seat to a more positive look at most of the phreaks, but this isn't really about the era as much as the people and circumstances, so it can easily be forgiven.

Definitely one of the better mainstream nonfiction books I've read lately. Of an era and a culture that doesn't get nearly enough thrift, and especially with a group that would fit in quite well with the maker movements of present day, the book is an excellent recommended read.

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21 April 2013

Review: Crap Kingdom

Crap Kingdom
Crap Kingdom by D.C. Pierson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I first learned of this book, I was extremely excited, since it was such a fun premise - a kid who enjoys fantasy tropes and such learns he is the Chosen One for a fantasy kingdom, except the kingdom he is the Chosen One for is a completely drag and no one would ever want to be the Chosen One there. Add in the fact that DC Pierson, a member of the Derrick Comedy group (possibly best known for the hilarious Mystery Team movie), is the writer? Sign me up.

When I talk about books, I tend to spend a lot more time on concepts and execution rather than the book itself. I have no clue why I gravitate toward that perspective, but I do. With Crap Kingdom, Pierson has done something fairly unique. It's a similar concept to the Terry Brooks Landover series, but with a definite comedic angle. The concept and the writer combined make for a very appealing prospect, but the book doesn't always work.

At the end of the day, the book is more of a bait-and-switch. The kingdom is secondary to the power struggle within, there's a lot of teen angst in the real world that drives the narrative, and the end of the book throws a significant curveball that is both impressive in its sleight of hand as it is frustrating given the entirety of the book. This isn't to say it's a bad book, or that it's even not good. It's just different in ways I don't think worked.

I will probably pick up anything and everything DC Pierson does for the immediate future. There's a lot to like about what's going on in his brain, and the book is well-written. This book in particular just isn't anything that really worked well for me on a whole.

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17 April 2013

Review: The Daylight War

The Daylight War
The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes a book series catches you by surprise, and by the time you're a few books in, you realize that it's become a favorite without your actually realizing it. The Demon Cycle is quickly becoming that series, which The Daylight War is the third book and is just as solid and high-quality as the two books preceding it.

The book takes place directly after The Desert Spear, but now we get some more backstory for Inervera and her dice of fate, as well as some good quality time with what I like to consider a battle bard, Rojer. The book spends a little time with everyone important, culminating in an epic climax that kept me up way, way past my bedtime.

I shouldn't like The Demon Cycle as much as I do. The starts of the books require a lot of buy-in to get rolling, even though the payoff is excellent. The setting is a more desert/Arabian feel, and I tend to like my fantasy more traditional. The book does its dialogue in English, but with the native inflections and accents, a literary choice I tend to hate, but find very appealing and immersive in this series. That a book can overcome so much for me in such a short time, and even still blow me away? That's the sign of something great.

I hate that the next book is probably years away. I hate that this book ended so quickly for me. I love that it has such an excellent magic system with the wards and the demons. I love the twist that the third book throws in with the magic system, that made me buy into it all over again. I love that the worldbuilding is so pronounced and yet feels so effortless at the same time. I love everything about this series except that I can't read book four yet.

Highly recommended.

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12 April 2013

Review: Strange Flesh

Strange Flesh
Strange Flesh by Michael Olson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It's taking a lot for me to not write "not my genre, not my genre" over and over, but I think it's just that this was not that good.

The story revolves around a mysterious suicide, which then brings our hero into a corporate underworld of sorts where people are inventing virtual reality sex robots. So there's plenty of virtual reality robot sex, plenty of reality reality non-robot sex, and a murder mystery that plays second fiddle to all the virtual sex being had and discussed in the book.

It's really a total bait-and-switch. What could have been a fun cyberpunk murder mystery devolved very quickly into less-than-compelling romp through faux-online communities and fetish sexuality, none of any of the prime points quite good enough to hold my interest. And my hopes for a suitable ending, by the time I was too far in to give up, were dashed by an incredibly drawn out final arc, which matched extremely well with how long it took to get to the meat of the story to begin with.

I may be judging this more harshly than I should, since mainstream murder mysteries have never been anything that piqued my interest, but this is unfortunately fatally flawed from the first page to the last, and I don't know how I could recommend it to anyone in good faith.

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10 April 2013

Review: Plague Town

Plague Town
Plague Town by Dana Fredsti

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There's a blurb on the back of Plague Town that describes the book as a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Walking Dead. Never has a blurb been more appropriate.

Plague Town is the story of Ashley Parker as she learns about her role during the zombie apocalypse. These zombies are the slow, plodding kind, very stereotypical, and Ashley is...special. Not necessarily in the way you might be thinking (the Buffy comparison is not 100% apt here), but she has a very important position in the puzzle.

The book is interesting in how it handles the reveal. If you're in this for a lot of zombie killing action, you're going to be disappointed. If you think training for the zombie apocalypse is the only thing keeping your traditional zombie movie from being awesome, you're going to love this book - I personally thought this aspect of it dragged. Regardless of how the book succeeds and fails, however, there's a key reveal at the end that is unlike anything I've read in the genre before, and elevates the book beyond pulpy mass-market escapism into something a little more daring.

While I'm not especially high on this book overall, I feel like it has a lot of potential as a trilogy with what looks to be a clear endpoint. I'll dive into the second volume for sure.

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03 April 2013

Review: Mockingbird

Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

Blackbirds was a pleasant surprise for me. A violent, profane tale of a woman who, by the power of touch, can see how someone can die, it threw some unconventional curveballs and left me pretty satisfied. Thus my surprise when the second book landed in the Kindle Store, as I really thought the story was done and over with.

The good news is that Miriam Black's story in this book is different and yet still interesting. In what is more a rote murder mystery story with significant fantasy elements, the story is still addictive and held my interest throughout. It's pulpy at times, but that's more than okay. It's a fun read.

The downside is that the story does feel somewhat unessential. I'm not sure where else the story is necessarily supposed to go, but that's not usually a bad thing. It still hangs in the back of my head, but...

Either way, I'm interested in what's coming next. Story or not, Wendig has created a compelling character in Miriam Black and I'm hoping we'll see more.

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