30 September 2013

Review: The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett

The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett
The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett by Tom Angleberger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my favorite middle grade reads is Frindle. A story about a kid who bucks authority by calling a pen a "frindle," I always thought that the book (and most of Andrew Clements's school stories) were way more anti-authority than teachers would accept. Alas, Frindle is almost 20 years old, but The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett has come at exactly the right time to carry that torch.

The cynic in me thinks this is more an attempt to stake out a certain place in the broader debates over Common Core and standardized testing than to continue the story of Dwight and Origami Yoda, but I'm willing to forgive it because it's so well-done and so much fun. Given that the school didn't do so hot on their standardized tests, the principal has chosen to more or less eliminate electives in favor of test prep, complete with extremely hokey and poorly done videos and worksheets. The kids want their electives back, so it becomes a seesaw back and forth as the kids threaten to tank the tests, or to not improve, and the story is a war of attrition throughout without a clear conclusion.

There's a lot to like here, from putting the controversies around standardized testing in the forefront of the plot of a book a lot of kids will read, to the continually unique names of the origami Star Wars characters. The faster-than-usual pace combined with the message allows me to overlook some of the flaws and the fact that agenda-driven fictional books (especially for kids) often leave me uncomfortable.

Overall, a great addition to the series. Definitely looking forward to the next volume as well.

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Review: Fool Moon

Fool Moon
Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Storm Front was good, but Fool Moon was great!

Fool Moon, if the title didn't tip you off, involves werewolves. The Dresden universe werewolves are a little different than the ones I'm familiar with (spoiler alert: werewolves have never been my thing), but there are some people who take on a more bestial quality, some that are super strong, the "loup-garou" (French for werewolf, naturally), and so on that are involved in a number of murders in Chicago. Harry Dresden, of course, is on the case, and onward we go from there.

What I liked: I complained a bit in the first book about the lack of danger. While I know there are a number of books left, there's was a solid feeling of danger for Harry throughout. He's shot, he's wheeling and dealing with demons, he's getting stabbed, possibly eaten...I knew he'd come away with his life intact, but there's absolutely no guarantee he'll come through clean, and that feels rare, even if it might not be.

I also like that the book is very clearly setting up little plot points for the future. Some are big, like the deals with the demon for Dresden's True Name, and some smaller, such as a certain person escaping to the Northwest at the end of the book or the abilities of the FBI. It's great to see some stuff laid out for the future in that regard.

Finally, kudos to Jim Butcher for making me care about werewolves for the first time. Just what I needed, another fictional trope to explore...

What I didn't like: In this case, actually, not too much. I thought it might have been a slower start than book one, but that's more than okay with how it ended up. I also still wish these books were slightly longer, if only to flesh out some of the more interesting pieces. I could have read 100 pages of Dresden interacting with the demon, but if it means it has to stretch out over 15 books? I'm okay with that, too.

I noted after Storm Front that this was more a dessert course for my literary meals, and this is largely true. With that said, Fool Moon definitely felt more substantive than its predecessor, and I am even more excited to jump into the next volume.

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28 September 2013

Review: Picture Me

Picture Me
Picture Me by Lori Weber

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There's absolutely a place for those quiet, thoughtful types of books for kids. Some are done really well, like with Cynthia Lord. Others are good but not always for me, like with Linda Urban. Lori Weber's Picture Me tries to be that sort of quiet and thoughtful book, but doesn't really hit the mark.

The story is more about bullying and dieting and the impacts of self-image among teen girls. Spurned by reading a poem in class, the story follows Krista coping with social implications, with her own weight, and so on. There's bullying involved as well, because of course there is.

This largely ends up being a book that's about a lot of things that are hot button issues, but without a real cohesive point, it feels muddled. Krista isn't especially likable or sympathetic, and the bullying feels mild compared to other books that handle it. It tries really hard, but just doesn't work.

I will almost certainly look for more books from Weber, as there's something here. This book, unfortunately, just didn't work at all.

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24 September 2013

Review: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A 2 for motive, a 4 for scholarship.

With the kerfuffle about the interview on the Fix website regarding Aslan's credentials and the ensuing craziness that surrounded it, I went into the book kind of thinking it was a shame that a possibly interesting read was overshadowed by a nothingburger controversy. Then I read the intro, which at least gives the impression that this is a book less about Jesus and more about a man coming to terms with the "othering," as it were, he felt regarding faith, religion, and Christianity in the United States. That doesn't always lead itself to good scholarship - in fact, I can't say I've ever seen it come to that.

With that said, the book itself is interesting. Jesus is the central figure, as it would have to be, but the meat of the book, and the best parts, are the more contextual histories of the era and the time. It's definitely a look at the historical Jesus as opposed to the spiritual one, which explains a lot of the outrage, but the key points are getting that contextual era straight, and that's where this book succeeds. It's a very basic look, and probably won't be news to people with some information already, but still a different read for people who might have needed it.

Can I recommend it? Depends on what you're looking for, to be honest. I can't speak significantly for the actual scholarship, as this was never really my area, but in terms of history positioned in a certain era, you can absolutely do worse.

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19 September 2013

Review: Night Film

Night Film
Night Film by Marisha Pessl

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think you might understand the feeling I'm about to put in front of you. Imagine something you really enjoy, something that isn't perhaps your main area of interest or employment, but it's a pretty deep interest nonetheless. One day, you're doing what you do, and you trip up on something really bizarre and definitely related. It stops being an interest, it ceases its existence as a hobby, and becomes a little more all-consuming. It may only happen for a short time, but you probably know this encompassing feeling pretty well from time to time.

Night Film is that feeling.

On its surface, Night Film is a standard journalistic detective novel with some modern flairs. The book peppers the story with a lot of fake found document-type stuff along the way - darknet webpages, online news articles, old Polaroids, and so on. They help illustrate the story of the daughter of a famous movie director who, following a public dark period, killed herself in a warehouse. What starts out as a simple investigation into a famous death becomes a rabbit hole of reclusive actors and filmmakers, dark magic, and the secret underbelly of the internet.

What's great about this book, beyond the fact that it's a mystery that was able to grab me very early on and keep me hooked, is how quickly it plays with perception and reality. It's impossible to know quite where things are going from scene to scene, the ability to trust anyone, from the narrator to the characters involved, disappears in a way we don't normally see in modern fiction. The stuff going on is genuinely creepy and would fit in well with any modern discussion of so-called "weird fiction." The book bends all sorts of genres and succeeds in not feeling overdone even though the book is about 600 pages long. It's a fast-paced, suspenseful burn.

To give away the real joy of this book, though, is to give away the ending, and even then...this is ultimately something that has to be experienced. It has to be experienced because I truly believe that anyone could find themselves in the shoes of McGrath, our "hero" as it were, for something of their own. The allure of falling into a story, the temptation of being completely consumed by it. Marisha Pessl makes it scary, and that's where the fun starts out.

I never got around to reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a book very well-regarded that I've had on my shelf for years. Night Film has ensured that that it will be read sooner rather than later, as Night Film is really one of the best things I've read this year. Great for fans of a good mystery, but rock-solid even for those lovers of genre and the underbelly of society on a whole. Definitely highly recommended.

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16 September 2013

Review: Theatre of the Gods

Theatre of the Gods
Theatre of the Gods by Matt Suddain

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As someone who enjoys big, bombastic science fiction space operas, I've been waiting for a long time for Matt Suddain's Theatre of the Gods, which I first heard of ages ago and was able to read an advance copy of recently even though I'm unaware of any United States release date for it. Theatre of the Gods is indeed ambitious and expansive, with a very unique narration and narrative structure, but ultimately falls underneath its own weight and becomes a little messy and haphazard.

The story, in three parts, involves an explorer on a ship with an incredibly differing group of people as a crew. There's a space Pope they're fighting. Some creature called "The Sweety." It's almost pointless to try and derive an overarching plot from this, because part of the ambitiousness of this book is the small mini-tangents that the book and the crew go off on before what ends up being a semi-epic confrontation right at the end.

The downside to the book is, unfortunately, the scope and ambitiousness. With so many moving parts and so much going on, it's very difficult to keep tied together from time to time, and the narration (which I could not stop hearing in the voice of Cecil from Welcome to Night Vale) is interesting enough to almost pull you out of the proceedings a bit. With such an epic scope, it ends up being a little frustrating for things to not go the way one might expect in terms of a more linear narrative. A lot about this book is just difficult, and not in a good way.

My issues with Theatre of the Gods is ultimately one of too much in one place. Suddain is clearly a very talented writer, and I will almost definitely try out another one of his books, but I wish I had proceeded with more caution on this one on a whole, as it ultimately left me cold and frustrated.

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09 September 2013

Review: The Kennedy Chronicles: The Golden Age of MTV Through Rose-Colored Glasses

The Kennedy Chronicles: The Golden Age of MTV Through Rose-Colored Glasses
The Kennedy Chronicles: The Golden Age of MTV Through Rose-Colored Glasses by Kennedy

My rating: 0 of 5 stars

If you're a certain age, you probably hit the sweet spot of MTV - a little after the network finally solidified its image, but before the scourge of things like Total Request Live and the end of the animation block. For me, I probably started watching around 1993, which means I was too young to know much about the personalities of the VJs like Kennedy, but old enough to know who was who at the very least. Kennedy was probably my favorite, if only because she came across to me as the misfit toy of the group - not a model, not a comedian, sort of the nerdy type who wandered in and ended up getting a gig on TV. Now, today, she's a political spokeperson in libertarian circles, and she put out a book about her time at MTV, so I dove right at it.

The meat of the book is effectively the story of Kennedy at MTV. It trades back and forth between anecdotes about working at MTV, getting hired, getting fired, the Beach House, and so on, and contrasts it with some talk of the bands she met of the time, her personal relationships with many of the people involved, and so on. It's a lot of confessional, a little "look how cool I was," and a lot of topics over the 300 pages.

What worked for me was that there were a lot of interesting stories. She spent a lot of time with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and you get a different feel for him than perhaps the popular sentiment would represent. In what might be the biggest reveal, we get an admission from the lead singer of the Goo Goo Dolls that their hit song "Name" was actually inspired by and about Kennedy, which is stunning. A lot of other interesting pieces about various musicians, and a surface-level inside look at MTV in general? It's not bad, especially in the short chapter bite-sized chunks it comes in.

I do wish the book spent more time on some of the aftermath. I do wish we had a more in-depth look at MTV's operations. Some stories, like the ones with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, feel like they're missing key information that should have probably been disclosed later on. The book's hyper-focus on MTV was a little disappointing, and Kennedy was way too focused on her virginity in the old stories. Really?

Overall, I enjoyed the read. It is far from perfect, but as a fun nostalgia trip, especially as someone who was right in MTV's wheelhouse during a time when Kennedy was on, and as someone who was young enough to not know what anyone else really thought about her? Absolutely worth my reading time.

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Review: Guitar Notes

Guitar Notes
Guitar Notes by Mary Amato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very impressive read overall, and at times one of the better contemporary YA books I've read recently.

The story goes back and forth between a musician who's faltering at being a good student and is kind of coming off the rails a bit, and a good student who is kind of coming off the rails a bit in terms of being a good musician. Lyla's great, in fact, and could do some prestigious things with her cello, but something's not really right. Meanwhile, Tripp, our guitar-slinging oddball, is having trouble at home and school, and finds refuge in a practice room at the school. Trading days with each other, the two strike up a friendship and perhaps something more along the way.

This feels like the setup to a bad teen romance, and it's really not. It's a lot deeper than that on a lot of levels, and one of those rare books for those in their early teens that would probably be beneficial for their parents to read afterwards as well. There's a lot to be said about friendship, about priorities, and about listening to yourself and to those around you, lessons that don't really come across too often in fiction period.

The last quarter threw a complete curveball that was especially heartbreaking, and really changed the game in this book from being a pleasant read with some nice concepts to a book that was indeed something much, much more. When a book can already be pretty great and move into a brilliant territory for a time, that's worth something.

Highly recommended for everyone. This is one that's going to stay with me for a while.

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