31 May 2013

Review: The Mockingbirds

The Mockingbirds
The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's both rare and surprising to see a book that is basically a "teen issues" book handle its topic with a light touch while still retaining the message in a non-cluebatty way.

The book takes place in a boarding school. A girl has too much to drink, wakes up naked with a guy and she doesn't remember the night before. She realizes that she was likely date raped, and since the boarding school (somewhat inexplicably) lacks the ability for recourse, she goes to the secret student organization that deals out justice for those wronged in the student body, the Mockingbirds.

There are plenty of To Kill a Mockingbird nods throughout, which is interesting when you catch them, and the book is very well-paced throughout. Putting aside the weird administrative structure at the school that doesn't sit right, the book feels pretty realistic for what's effectively an issues vehicle, and it hits the right notes in the right way. What could have been a social justice eyeroll-worthy screed ends up succeeding at being obvious at being subtle. It definitely works.

Glad I read this, and will be looking up the sequel sooner rather than later.

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29 May 2013

Review: The Rithmatist

The Rithmatist
The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On one hand, this is another classic Brandon Sanderson read, complete with unique magic system and compelling finale.

On the other, this is a little more disjointed than most of his stuff, and is more rescued by a great conclusion than consistently getting there.

The story follows a kid, Joel, who really wishes he could be a Rithmatist, a type of mage that uses chalk outlines to build spells and attack/defend. Taking place in an alternate United States where a massive war is happening, Rithmatists are trained at a special school to learn their craft and go to war. A series of kidnappings are occurring on campus, however, and Joel is on the case, along with his friend Melody and their professor.

The book isn't bad, far from it. It feels too young for a young adult audience, too old for middle grade, and the magic system in particular is interesting but feels limited. I'd put this closer to a 3 if it weren't for a really wild, really entertaining finale where everything starts to make a little more sense, but getting there was admittedly a bit of a slog in a way I didn't expect.

As a Sanderson fanboy, this worked pretty well for me on a whole. As someone who was looking for a better book, however, this left me wanting more on a whole. I really did enjoy this book, it's more that Sanderson has set the bar so spectacularly high as of late that something less solid pales in comparison. If you're a fan, dive in, but if not, you might not love this as much as you think you might.

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Review: You

You by Austin Grossman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's always dangerous to judge a book by its cover, but look at this cover. LOOK AT IT. This cover alone, when this book was announced sometime last year, immediately placed it at the top of my list. Only later did I realize that the author, Austin Grossman, also penned the interesting, but flawed, Now I Will Be Invincible, a love letter to various comic tropes. Grossman takes that love letter concept to the heyday of next generation video games in You.

The book is a pretty straightforward plot on a whole, following one programmer at a small company in the age of Doom and such developing the next installment in a massive, critically acclaimed role-playing game, Realms. The creative director has left, there's a new engine that might need to be put in place, and the old engine, developed long ago, is doing...weird things to the older games. The story bounces between the past and present, along with developing a lot of backstory for the games being discussed. It's immensely readable and throws a nice little technological mystery to go along with the fun storytelling.

The gold standard recently for these video game homages has been Ready Player One as of late, and the book is much less that than it is a period piece from near history. Grossman, who works in video games (most recently Dishonered), provides a sincere and credible voice to the story, and the story itself is just technical enough to be super-realistic while still remaining accessible. The narrative flows so well that I pretty much tore through most of this in one evening, which says a lot about the quality. At the end of the day, I really enjoyed reading this book in a way that I don't always "enjoy" reading books I really loved. There's something to that.

Can I quibble about some things? Without a doubt. The main character exists more as a vehicle to move the plot and characters along, and isn't so interesting on his own. The weird plot point that more or less drives the story along is never really resolved in a meaningful or serious way, leaving one part dangling for me. Soon I Will Be Invincible (and, for that matter, The Magician King by Austin's brother, Lev) had the same problem of lacking that clean, stringless ending that tends to work better in literary fiction rather than genre (although these books have a tendency to try and bend literary into genre).

Beyond that, though? A really solid entry in the ever-growing "video game nostalgia" genre. If you're looking for a Wreck-It Ralph romp, you're not going to find it here. Instead, you'll have a great trip back into the place where video games really started for a lot of us. Not too bad.

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25 May 2013

Review: Hounded

Hounded by Kevin Hearne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've spoken a few times about my struggles with urban fantasy, and this series was recommended to me more than once as an option. The book is far from perfect, but it's still a really fun, engaging ride on a whole.

The book follows Atticus, a 2000 year old druid who lives in Arizona. He works in a bookstore, has a dog he can communicate telepathically with, and things are quiet until he learns that an old god wants his super-powerful sword.

The major flaw is the setup on a whole. For whatever reason, the first quarter of this book feels like nothing but setting and backstory, which may be your dream but instead feels more like an information dump than anything else. It nearly made me put this aside, but I'm glad I didn't, as once the story gets rolling, you get the feeling as to how funny a character Atticus is, how great his interactions with the folks around him, and how the world he inhabits really works. It's a pretty fun time.

What's interesting, though, is the "urban fantasy" moniker I've seen attached to this. Perhaps because the book is somewhat pulpy and not too serious, it gets that designation, but, in a lot of ways, it's a more traditional fantasy that simply sits in a modern setting - it's not "urban fantasy" the way, say, Mieville or Gaiman can tend to be.

Overall, a solid read. I'll definitely be seeking out the next volume, sooner rather than later.

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20 May 2013

Review: Further: Beyond the Threshold

Further: Beyond the Threshold
Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that I've had in my Kindle for a while, and being that I'm becoming more and more of a fan of Chris Roberson by the day, I finally bumped this one into the front.

There are two great things about this book:

1) It is solid, five-star, classic science fiction worldbuilding. In a sense, half the book is worldbuilding, and it's glorious. We spend a ton of time establishing everything around us, it's not hard science but feels like it, and so on. It's great fun.

2) In the same classic sense, this book feels like a throwback. It's modern pulpy in a sense, feeling really populist and light and accessible. It's a good time.

There is one somewhat negative thing about this book:

1) It is very light on plot beyond the worldbuilding. The story is more a vehicle for what's going on around the main character for at least half of the book, and that may be charitable. This isn't too negative given how high quality the plot surrounding the story is, but if you're looking for a grand epic, or even a sizable adventure, this might not be it for you.

All things considered, though, this was a fun read. It's almost like an episodic miniseries in print form, which is not what I expected but definitely enjoyed. Possibly one of my favorite Roberson books so far. Definitely worth it if you're into this kind of escapism.

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15 May 2013

Review: NOS4A2

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Resurrection, parallel universes, creepy bone hammers, rhyming minions, and a demonic Rolls Royce?

Yeah, I'm in.

Joe Hill's latest is deceptive, in a way. While the buildup is slow, the payoff is solid as we're introduced to the cast and setting of NO4A2, named after the license plate of Charlie Manx's 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith. Manx, you see, has a thing for kidnapping children and bringing them to "Christmasland," a place inside the United States (bearing a strong resemblance to Santa's Village in northern New Hampshire) but not quite inside the United States. The story spends a lot of introductory time with Manx, his minion, and with some of the kids in mind.

One who got away is Vic, who probably saw some things she shouldn't, but got Charlie put in jail for the rest of his life anyway. But now Charlie's back? And he wants Vic's son?

My only other exposures to Hill were Locke & Key, a weird comic, and Horns, which was a brilliant read. Both of those works, along with NOS4A2, have done a lot to change what my perception of horror as a genre is. Perhaps Hill is not horror the way his father, Stephen King is, but his books have a weird, Lovecraft/Howard/Clark Ashton Smith vibe to them that how I view horror doesn't. The book is really masterful both in its pacing and its reveals, with just the right balance of creepy and nasty.

In a 600+ page book (especially when the previous book, Horns, was many pages fewer), you expect padding that wasn't there. There are hints to other books (heck, other authors), reasonable cultural and geographical touchstones, and plenty of nods to interests of Hill's himself, which are always fun Easter eggs to get. Does it suffer from unnecessary profanity and some stuff that seems gross or off-putting simply for the sake of it? Yes, of course, but given the genre, it's pretty expected and can easily be forgiven. The slow start might also be frustrating, but with how well it paid off and seeing the necessity for it? I have half a mind to reread the first 100 or so pages and see what I ended up missing.

Honestly, and I don't say this lightly, this book might be a great crossover title for people who tend to like fantasy but don't do horror. It's not scary, but it's creepy. It's not disgusting, but it is strange. What I can say, however, is that it's pretty great overall, and opens some really interesting doors for Hill's future work as well.

Don't skip this one. You'll absolutely regret it if you do.

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12 May 2013

Review: Relatively Famous

Relatively Famous
Relatively Famous by Jessica Park

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Considering how much I loved Flat-Out Love, I decided to pick up her earlier one off the Amazon Lending Library, Relatively Famous. A first attempt at branching out to independent publishing, it's readable but flawed.

The story itself is interesting enough. Dani learns her father is a famous actor known more for his off-screen life than his career. She goes to visit him in Hollywood, and gets caught up in the whole lifestyle.

Where the book falls a little short is the writing, which is good but really needed a little more editorial help than it got. With the stories surrounding Flat-Out Love and how the author went after some professional copyediting, the quality of it shows between the two books, and I'm forced to wonder if a better look would have resulted in a less stilted plot progression on a whole.

It's not a dealbreaker in any regard. If you liked Flat-Out Love, this will also do the trick. It's just good to see the progression from this to Flat, and really just makes me want to see what's coming next that much more.

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08 May 2013

Review: Someday, Someday, Maybe

Someday, Someday, Maybe
Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Among the television shows I'm an unabashed fan of, Gilmore Girls and Parenthood both make the list. This means that there's a lot of Lauren Graham in my entertainment, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all. I had no clue that she planned to write a book, but when I finally did notice it, I jumped right on it.

The book is a pretty standard tale, all things considered. We follow the life of an aspiring, struggling actress, Franny, in New York City as she tries to get jobs, keep friends, find meaningful relationships, and so on. Taking place in 1995, the extra frustrations of technology and such get to shine through as she tries to get agents, jobs, and really just keep her head on straight.

This is like an episode of Gilmore Girls, and I say that as a compliment. It's extremely fast-paced, witty, and you get a feel for Franny almost immediately. The happenings in the book are a perfect blend of realistic and ridiculous, and the way things pan out are never really etched in stone throughout the book. If I have a complaint, it's that all the characters, with the exception of one or two, basically sound the same - everyone's a little quirky and wisecracky and whatnot. Hardly a dealbreaker for something this fun, though.

Overall, a light, fluffy, enjoyable read. Perfect for fans of Lauren Graham, perfect for fans of her work and associated work (if you watch Bunheads, it's near-impossible not to visualize Sutton Foster in the Franny spot), check this one out if you're intrigued at all.

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06 May 2013

Review: See You at Harry's

See You at Harry's
See You at Harry's by Jo Knowles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are a lot of contemporary young adult books that try to address issues in teens and middle schoolers in a very real way. I've now read two Jo Knowles books, and she's quite the master at doing this, even if See You at Harry's samples from all the Relevant Issues ingredient shelves and bakes them together in a very solid, somewhat manic read.

The book is primarily about a family that owns an ice cream shop. Five people in the family, the friends that are made from school and from the shop, the bullies and unreasonable adults that remain in orbit, and everything in between.

The book works well because it deals with the peaks and valleys of life, and how communities come together in various forms of tragedies, as well as successes. The major plot point does come unexpectedly, which is so appropriate in a sense, but it does put a lot of the other issues on the back burner - again, where they belong in context. It's a different reading experience in that regard, but it's still applause-worthy.

This is a great read that I'm glad I was able to trip up over. Jo Knowles is fast becoming a favorite YA writer for me, and she deserves a lot of credit for bringing up a lot of issues for the age group that don't feel forced or preachy. Highly recommended.

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03 May 2013

Review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Where'd You Go, Bernadette
Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can't say I know exactly what drew me to this book. The cover is amazing, but the author was unknown and it was getting a lot of love from literary fiction folks, which is typically something that can go either way for me. Regardless, what I read about it sounded interesting enough, and I grabbed it from the local library when I saw it on the shelf.

Wow, was this good.

Told almost entirely in letters, emails, instant messages, and so on, this is the story of Bernadette, a woman who was, at one point, the most promising American architect going. As the book progresses, we learn little things about her that eventually result in the revelation of some mental illness. This isn't really a book about mental illness, though, or people coping with it. In fact, it's really something a lot more that I don't want to give away at all.

The format is something I generally love, and it works great here. The story itself is engrossing and has enough twists and turns going in it to keep you in that "oh, one more section" mode. The author has written for a lot of great television as well, so the pacing makes a ton of sense in that regard.

Overall, a book that initially flew under my radar but turned out to be something I'll be recommending to a lot of people in the future. A great, great read.

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