30 December 2013

Review: Fortune's Pawn

Fortune's Pawn
Fortune's Pawn by Rachel Bach

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've read a lot of flawed science fiction over the years, and rarely are the flaws outright avoidable. Sometimes it's a concept, sometimes it's just an execution, sometimes it's just that it doesn't work for me. Fortune's Pawn has a lot going for it, and when it succeeds it soars. Much like a malfunctioning robosuit, however, when this book stumbles, it falls hard and leaves a pretty bad taste in your mouth.

Taking a little from Alien, a little from standard mercenary tropes, and a little from the internet, Fortune's Pawn is the adventure of Devi, a mercenary-for-hire who is brought in to a somewhat derelict ship for a year's worth of a security detail. The crew is all fairly unique, each with their own quirk, and some more deadly and illegal than others.

The first book in a three book series, the positives on this is that the story does take a pretty interesting urban fantasy attitude to a straight sci-fi tale. The story is cohesive, but brought together with smaller vignettes rather than a firm focus on one significant story. This means a lot of action in small sections, it means just enough exposition to get the idea without being bogged down too much in details, and there's a little bit for every sci-fi fan, from focus on technology to alien cultures.

The glaring issues, however, are noteworthy. One, this definitely has a "written-for-an-agenda" feel to it. Devi is a strong, independent, flawed, normal female hero, which is surely a breath of fresh air in a male-dominated genre. The problem is when the story won't let you forget how much of a breath of fresh air it is, hanging itself on being so progressive that it almost feels tacked on as opposed to organic. Alien comes to mind on this, where Ripley begins being a hero because she has to be, not because they needed to check a box. Devi, far too often, appears to come across as a "female hero" as opposed to a "hero that is female," if that makes sense. The arbitrary statements that come across as if they were lifted from a Tumblr screed rather than from a place where the narrative needs it. There are ways to do genre fiction without being preachy, and in an attempt to be inclusive it too often felt alienating.

The other big issue is more one of preference. The structure of the narrative, being more episodic than overarching, results in a lot of sections that do little to advance the plot beyond characterization that could have worked within a broader narrative. This is where the urban fantasy feel comes in, as the patchwork plotting adds to the story in some ways and detracts in others. Too often I was getting frustrated with scenes that kept me from learning more about the overall story, which shouldn't happen.

Overall, not a bad read, but not as good as it could (or should) have been. Will definitely appeal to a number of readers (especially fans of Jim C. Hines), but may turn off a lot of others in the process.

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23 December 2013

Review: Roomies

Roomies by Sara Zarr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've never read anything by either of these authors, but Sara Zarr in particular is held in high regard in many of my circles, and the idea of a team book about two girls who are headed to college and will be roommates was something that sounded pretty great.

The story alternates between the two girls. One, a more upper class girl looking for a good college time, the other a more middle/lower class girl from a large family who really wanted a single so she could escape from her life a bit. The two strike up a friendship over email as they get to their move-in day and experience each other's lives a little bit through each other in the process.

I liked a lot about this book. Everything felt realistic, and having it be written by two separate people meant that the two voices sounded distinct, which is often difficult to do. Overall, I have no complaints on the whole, but I did feel it ultimately got a little long, and perhaps didn't quite hit the mark emotionally with a lot of the ways the girls handled their individual situations.

These are all minor flaws in what should be a great read for most, and one I can wholeheartedly recommend.

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18 December 2013

Review: S.

S. by J.J. Abrams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I remember reading some column earlier this year about being older and not having your mind blown as often when it comes to music or books or general experiences because you've gotten so much experience and so much time with your surroundings that it becomes more difficult to be fully impressed. I found that pretty compelling, in part because it's true - my own personal mental exhaustion on a lot of things I used to have all sorts of energy for back in the day has certainly made it harder for me to truly be wowed by something the way, say, Kid A or High Fidelity or Sideways resonated with me years earlier.

I've read well over 300 books this year. A few, most notably Night Film and 2012's The Mirage, really impressed me beyond being simply enjoyable reads, but nothing I've read for quite some time has really stuck with me in a while.

Then came S. The product of a collaboration between media mastermind JJ Abrams and author Doug Dorst, it's a love letter to research, to conspiracy theories, to actual physical books. It's pretty brilliant.

There is not one story here. The book itself is by a fictional author, mysterious in an of himself. The book is a full, 400+ page novel called The Ship of Theseus, a frankly meandering tome that kind of goes all over the place. The story that goes along with it, however, are the margin notes of Eric and Jen, the former a disgraced graduate student who has spent nearly a decade on the authorship conspiracy and the latter a senior at the college looking to graduate soon but gets involved with Eric and the authorship issue.

Oh, and the authorship question? It may or may not be involved with a major international conspiracy .

Every inch of the book is a hint. The book itself is supposed to be a translation with coded references, the story of Jen and Eric takes place in the form of changes in the color of the ink in the margins, meaning we're watching two separate timelines unfold along with their relationship to the text and each other. They also litter the pages quite literally with different notes, printouts, postcards, pictures, and so on. All of these things add to the entire story as weird little found materials along the way. As someone who loves finding little funny quirks in research, having these little extras around was an absolute joy.

The book is certainly an all-time favorite for me. I grabbed it from the library, but I had bought a copy before I was even halfway through this read. It's not without its flaws, of course - the conceit requires a significant suspension of disbelief to start, and the timeline issue (there are occasionally four different tales happening at the same time on the same page) can be confusing from time to time. With that said, there's so much happening with it that I'm tempted to read the whole thing again when my own copy comes in the mail right away. It's that good, and I'm not one to reread books often at all.

A word to the wise - if you have an opportunity to get this from a library, be careful, as your library edition might have the pieces taken out of the book and thus they won't make a lot of sense unless you know what they're referencing. If you do, however, have an opportunity to read this at all, don't pass up the opportunity. I'm positive it's not for everyone, but this is one that's going to stick with me in terms of a fun, crazy read for a long, long time. Don't miss out.

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14 December 2013

Review: The Circle

The Circle
The Circle by Dave Eggers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

I might just be perceiving things differently, but I never considered Dave Eggers to be the type of author who is... direct. There's usually a lot of odd pseudo-stream-of-consciousness stuff or more experimental ideas, but the idea of a Dave Eggers novel that feels both modern and accessible feels kind of foreign.

The Circle is effectively Dave Eggers making an attempt at 1984 for the Google age. It's equal parts near-futurism, social commentary, and scaremongering cautionary tale, which means it's inherently readable and also kind of infuriating at the same time.

The story is mostly about Mae, a woman in her mid-twenties who is recruited to work at The Circle, a tech company in California best known for its search engine but is expanding into a bunch of different markets. Very quickly, Mae learns about how all-encompassing working at The Circle is - it's less a job as much as it is a way of life, and it's a way of life that The Circle wants to expand into the general population. During the course of the story, we see these thoughts, ideas, and intentions expand and see their impact on society as well as Mae's family and friends themselves.

The issue with this is that Eggers is very clearly aping 1984 in that The Circle is essentially how he views Google in a nutshell. We fear the dystopia of 1984 because it's people with actual control over us, but the fear from The Circle is less pronounced, so he essentially has to create it differently in order to make his point about voluntary surveillance. In Eggers's world, there aren't a lot of privacy-minded people, there basically aren't any internet trolls to speak of, and companies of tens of thousands inspire cultish devotion as opposed to dissent and discussion. It's not realistic - 1984 worked because we knew it was an extreme caricature of a possible future, while The Circle, at least in its own tone, feels as if it's describing an actual probable future, doing so with often-clunky dialogue and inorganic scenes that pulled me out of the narrative almost as quickly as I fell into it.

Overall, it's a good read in part because it's Dave Eggers, but it's a read that doesn't work because of a lot of its fatal flaws. Were it 300 pages and less preachy, maybe it would be more successful for me. As it stood, though, there was a lot to take issue with that dragged the whole narrative down.

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04 December 2013

Review: Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age

Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age
Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age by Mathew Klickstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In terms of my television consumption, I pretty much grew up on Nickelodeon. I loved Pinwheel when I was really little, ate up Rugrats and Doug and Hey Dude and Clarissa Explains It All and You Can't Do That on Television and Danger Mouse and...I could go on and on.

I was a big Nickelodeon fan.

Slimed is a book chock-full of interviews with pretty much everyone alive who was involved with the creation of the network as well as the actors and showrunners involved with all the classic shows. It's rather epic and exhaustive in its ability to find people involved, and it's a pretty solid oral history up there with the Live From New York oral history of Saturday Night Live from a few years back.

In terms of insider information, there's plenty there for everyone. Discussion of growing up on television, how people got paid, how Double Dare worked, the slime, the awards...one could go on and on and on with how much information is in this book, which is pretty great as a first-hand account.

The downside is that the book doesn't detail who does what until the end, which makes following the narrative a pain. Chances are you know who Melissa Joan Hart played. But do you really know the name of the actor who played Donkey Lips on Salute Your Shorts? Or even the showrunners for some of these programs? I didn't, and having to flip around constantly was frustrating.

Overall, a pretty great read. Definitely perfect for television buffs and nostalgia lovers alike.

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02 December 2013

Review: Summer Knight

Summer Knight
Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I continue to be absolutely shocked at how much more I'm enjoying this series from book to book.

Summer Knight takes place a year after Grave Peril, and Harry's not in a good place. He's still trying to sort out the negative repercussions of the end of the previous book, and now even the Wizard Council is more than a little upset. Harry's got a massive, massive target on his back both professionally and personally, and it's not really clear how he'll work it out.

What I Liked: The unpredictability, because so many of the situations Dresden ends up have no obvious exit. It's continually impressive that the situations work out the way they do, good or bad. Plus, there continues to be real danger. People have struggles, Harry seems very mortal still, and so on. I also liked that we got a lot of background regarding the warring factions, as well as some good internal politics. I love me some internal politics.

What I Didn't Like: For as much as I can praise the series for making Harry fallible and experiencing consequences for his actions, it's becoming kind of standard that he finds some bizarre, unique way to weasel out of every situation. For the sake of my sanity at this point, I hope that improves.

Overall, another quality volume in what's fast-becoming a favorite series for me. I hate that I've decided one a month is enough for me, because I really would just mainline all of these at this point.

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