31 October 2013

Review: The Naturals

The Naturals
The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I do find myself becoming somewhat tired of the "school age kid is X, and is enrolled in special school Y" trope that comes across so often, I was still drawn in by the concept behind "The Naturals." I was hoping that its spy/intelligence aspects would deliver in a way the "Gallagher Girls" series has for me. While there is a lot to like, both in terms of pacing and in story, the book ultimately suffers from being more formulaic than groundbreaking, and more procedural than promising.

The story is about a girl, Cassie, who is somehow pretty solid at reading people. Her mother was murdered years earlier, and the case remained unsolved, but the FBI has taken notice of her standing and recruits her to join a program where teens try to break the code on a series of cold cases. The kids in this program are also unnaturally good at certain aspects of psychological activity (like being able to read/influence emotions), and things get a little more serious a lot quicker than anyone thought.

Cassie is a great character, and the concept behind this entire idea is worthwhile. Where the book stumbles a bit, however, is where it stops feeling special. There are some fantastical/science fictional elements to the plot, for sure, but those are very quickly tampered down in favor of a more NCIS/Law and Order style procedural drama/thriller atmosphere that doesn't quite work with the tone or setup. If the book chose one route or the other, it may have been a lot more successful, but where the story instead tries to be all things to all people in a sense, it just left too much to the side in favor of playing the standard crime drama card.

Flaws and all, it was a good read, just not great. I do look forward to the next volume regardless, in hopes that things might get streamlined a bit, but this ultimately missed the mark somewhat for me.

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28 October 2013

Review: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools
Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools by Diane Ravitch

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I can't remember the last time I was so frustrated reading a book. I don't like to say a book is one star very often, because I believe one star represents some sort of irredeemable qualities that cannot be rescued. Sadly, this is one of those books, as it's a pile of strawmen in a heap, knocked over by ridiculous conclusions and poor logic.

On the basic stuff, I actually found myself nodding in agreement with her. There are a lot of myths about education reform that should probably be addressed, there is a problem with testing, with Common Core, with all sorts of different ways to address it.

And then comes the "schools are being privatized by corporate interest groups" conspiracy theory.

It's like someone talking about global warming, making a ton of great points, and then blaming the whole thing on moon men. After spending pages talking about what is and isn't a problem, the solution is to say there isn't really a problem, teachers and education are better than they've ever been, and those evil ALEC corporate funded stooges are lying to you about all of it while privatizing public schools beneath our noses. Vouchers? ALEC-positioned attempts to get public money in private schools. Merit pay and tenure reform? ALEC-positioned attempts to run schools more like the businesses that now apparently own them. Common Core? Corporate enrichment by Bill Gates. There are great arguments for and against all of these things. Ravitch fails to make them, instead choosing to address arguments no one is seriously making and ensuring that she positions those who disagree with her as pro-business stooges.

The issue is not so much with her research (although there have been some murmurings about that) but with her conclusions. Beyond the conspiracy theorizing, her position is profoundly anti-technology, anti-reform period (except when it benefits whatever standard position she holds), and pro-expansion of the only things both sides of the debate agree with, yet she does not. For as much as she feels her position is based in data, her strong feelings toward universal preschool (and things that look like Head Start even though she doesn't name it as such) is especially baffling.

Overall, this is not a book that's worth your time. Even an education extremist as myself who really thinks the entire system needs to be imploded and reworked from the bottom up recognizes that it's an extreme position at its core. Ravitch not only fails to recognize her errors and her issues with the conclusions, but considers herself in the position of the stalwart defender of a system that, because it's working better than ever, needs few changes outside of the ones that would benefit her preferred groups. Very unfortunate.

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25 October 2013

Review: The Incrementalists

The Incrementalists
The Incrementalists by Steven Brust

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There's something to be said about high concept science fiction and fantasy. I love books with big ideas, and a lot of them work while a lot of them do not. The Incrementalists is not really positioned as a Big Idea book, but in a lot of ways it's exactly what it is. While big Big Idea is cool, the result ends up a little too formulaic for what I was looking for.

The book is about a group of people who have figured out a way to manipulate the memories of the world in small ways, incrementally. One of their members effectively goes off the deep end a bit, and it's up to the rest of the group to figure things out and, in a sense, save themselves in the process.

The idea and concept behind the group of people is great. I like the idea of a small cadre of people being able to manipulate memories and change things around, I thought the characters themselves, when they were distinguishable, were fun. The book is incredibly self-contained, however, with some strange choices throughout. The shifting of memories and personalities throughout is meant to be disorienting, I think, and it succeeds, but not in a good way but rather a frustrating one. The most troublesome part for me, though, is that this grand idea is effectively boiled down to a speculative murder mystery as opposed to something interesting and significant within the world itself.

Ultimately, not a bad read, just underwhelming. It was a significantly fast read for me on a whole, and it's worth checking out if the idea grabs you. I was just hoping for more.

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21 October 2013

Review: The Twelve

The Twelve
The Twelve by Justin Cronin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Closer to a 3.5.

I really, really enjoyed The Passage. I thought it was a solid modern take on the vampire genre and was a fun read overall. The Twelve, somehow only a middle book in the series, suffers a bit from being a little more allegorical and a little less direct in how it goes about its narrative. Middle book syndrome or an idea that exhausted itself? I don't know.

Regardless, the book jumps around timeline-wise a bit to give us more backstory on the main vamps, and to get into an infiltration scheme to turn the tide a bit. We meet a ton of new characters, we learn about more human interactions with the virus as opposed to the solid government conspiracy angle of The Passage, and, to its credit, we get a really fascinating conclusion to the whole thing.

The number one issue I had with the book is that it somewhat betrays the initial idea in The Passage. It stops being that conspiracy book and becomes something incredibly different, and while that different story is good, it would have worked better had it not been attached to the existing plot. It has a very World War II infiltration feel to it in a lot of ways, which I'm not sure was the intent, but was something I walked away with a bit. It just took too long to get there, even though "there" was a good time.

Overall, a solid read, although definitely flawed. As there's supposed to be a third volume sometime, I have no clue where it will go based on this ending, but I'll still go and pick it up. Hopefully the third one brings things back around to where the first was plot-quality-wise.

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17 October 2013

Review: The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible

The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible
The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible by Neil O Connelly

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Probably closer to a 2.5 for me.

There's a mixed history for me with prose superhero stories. Some, like Austin Grossman's Soon I Shall Be Invincible, work within the framework of the stories it is trying to ape in prose to come up with a good story. Some, like Brandon Sanderson's Steelheart, subvert those tropes in a way that speaks to the stories it is mimicking, but with a good twist. The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible tries to be the latter more than the former, but with a slightly different twist to it. While it tries, in a sense, to be a character study of an older, aging superhero (think an adult version of Mr Incredible from The Incredibles), the book comes across more like a McSweeney's-fication of the superhero prose genre than anything else, and it doesn't always work.

The story is pretty basic in the regards that Commander Invincible is older now, and a lot of the threats that he's accustomed to are gone. Yes, superheroes are still a thing, but supervillains not so much. Plus, home life isn't so great for the Commander, with his wife possibly seeking something different and his kids feeling detached. Commander Invincible chooses the path of trying to reassert his relevance while balancing everything else going on in his world.

On the surface, this is really less a book about superheroes than it is a book about getting old within a superhero universe. In that aspect, it does succeed to a point, as it does the one thing that many superhero stories in general do not attempt, and that's bring a level of humanity to the heroes themselves. The problem is that this book overplays its hand more than a little bit in trying to subvert the genre in favor of the narrative it has drawn. There's a significant "get on with it" feel to the entire story that exists throughout the whole thing, choosing to be a deeper character study than a story. It's a choice that doesn't always work, and (especially when it comes to a genre like this) almost feels like false advertising.

When I say it's like "the McSweeney's-fication" of the trope, I mean it in that it feels like it's intentionally throwing a curveball with a wink and a nod to a more literary audience even though everything else suggests people who are looking for a funnier take on an existing idea. Sometimes that works, but this, unfortunately, did not. If you're looking for superhero stories that don't do the same thing over and over, there are a few out there worth noting. If you're looking for coming of age and superheroes, there are probably better comic books that figure this out as well. As for this, it's a good shot that simply didn't work for me at all.

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15 October 2013

Review: Dracula Cha Cha Cha

Dracula Cha Cha Cha
Dracula Cha Cha Cha by Kim Newman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, to get it out of the way, this might be the worst title for a book I've ever encountered.

It makes sense in the story, as it's a reference to something somewhat specific, but still, I'm glad they did a change to the title later. The story actually completes (to a point, apparently) the story started back in the first book, where this takes place close to Dracula's impending wedding in the 1950s. A lot of loose ends are tied, some new ones created, but it's a complete story for the first time.

I liked this one a lot more than the first two books, in part because of the plot being more cohesive, in part because I liked the setting more, but mostly because things actually happen in this book, which was not as evident in the first two. Part of it may be this book's age, which is only about 15 years out as opposed to the 20+. Part of it might just be that it's a better book. Part of it might lend itself to the fact that an endpoint exists and the plot actually moves toward it. Could be any of those reasons, but, regardless, I was rewarded for sticking with the series (even though it wasn't bad for most of it).

The next (last?) book is Johnny Alucard, and I'm interested to see how it fits in with a story that feels finished. We'll see...

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13 October 2013

Review: United We Spy

United We Spy
United We Spy by Ally Carter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's ultimately rare that a final book in a long-running, highly-regarded series can leave you completely satisfied, never mind possibly be the best entry in the overall series. United We Spy does both, and does it so well that I'm genuinely sad that the story is complete.

Essentially, the problems that kept arising in the most recent books finally come to a head. No one can be trusted, there are bombings and murders, and Cammie is essentially forced to lead the charge with her Gallagher Girls to try and save her friend while also maybe sort of kind of having to disrupt plans to usher in World War III.

No big deal, right?

Some of the earlier books spent too much time keeping the foot off the gas, but United We Spy really hits the ground running and doesn't stop until the last few pages. We get a sense of danger that hasn't really existed throughout the story, some sophisticated plotting, and a good balance of fun, suspense, and surprises. It's crafted incredibly well, and I really can't complain.

This has always been a favorite series of mine, and I'm glad to see that there's no real letdown to speak of. It's a really strong achievement, and I'm glad that there's nothing here to disappoint. If you've been holding off on finishing this series, you'll be doing yourself a disservice at this point. One of the best young adult books of the year.

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10 October 2013

Review: Steelheart

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Man, is Brandon Sanderson good or what?

I will reflexively read anything he puts out there, so that I'd read and probably enjoy Steelheart is no surprise for me. What I didn't expect was such a solid start for someone who's known more for fantasy than sci-fi in his first solid young adult effort.

The idea behind the book is fun: the nation is effectively run by supervillains, or "Epics," and the one running Chicago is Steelheart. Steelheart killed David's father, and David wants in with the insurgent opposition group, The Reckoners, to get his revenge. The problem is that Steelheart appears to be invincible. The wrinkle is that David's seen Steelheart get hurt before, and thinks he can do it again.

It's a fun, fast-paced ride in every way. The story flows extremely quickly from one point to the next, it's dark without being super negative, it has a lot of good action scenes to go along with some great worldbuilding, which is a standard of Sanderson. Just great.

We have to wait until next fall for the sequel, and that makes me sad. Alas...

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08 October 2013

Review: Blythewood

Blythewood by Carol Goodman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Blythewood is a strange, different YA book that involves a magical school and witches and all sorts of creepy things. This is a long-standing trope among this age group, and yet this book works significantly better than most of them, creating a rich world with a lot of unexpected happenings.

The plot is fairly basic: after Avaline's mother commits suicide following her survival from the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Avaline is brought to a boarding school - the same one her mother was expelled from as a child, and there she learns more about her own life, her mother, and a lot of details about things she never understood before.

This works because it has an epic-style length and still moves at a pretty breakneck pace. Avaline is a great character, the school is mysterious and interesting without being a retread, and there's equal parts whimsy and craziness. I read this some time ago, and many of the themes and situations still resonate extremely strongly in my mind.

I wish I had a lot more to say about this book except that I really, really loved this book. If you enjoy stories with magic and fantasy, and are looking for something a little more mature for the YA age group, grab this one immediately.

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03 October 2013

Review: The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave
The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Literally one of the better alien invasion novels I've ever been able to read. I enjoyed Rick Yancey's Alfred Kropp series quite a bit, but the size and scope of this one was putting me off for a while. Thankfully, a few people recommended it, I dove in, and quickly mowed down about 300-odd pages in the first sitting.

It's that good.

The story is pretty simple. An alien spaceship comes to earth, kills off a small number of people in an EMP in the first wave, and a larger group in the second, and so forth. We follow Cassie and her little brother as they work toward survival in this new world where the aliens are taking over.

The book is solid. It's fast-paced, plenty of action, it doesn't shy away from good sci-fi elements, and it stays well within the young adult universe while doing so. It reads like YA, which feels a little off-putting given the subject matter and some of what occurs, but it's less like a book and more like an action movie in structure. Plus, nothing seems overdone. There's a lot to keep you guessing throughout, and the setup is ripe for a sequel.

Overall, a solid A. I don't know what I would have preferred to make it even better, but at this point I'm just grasping at things. If you want a solid, quick sci-fi read for an age group sorely in need of books like it, The 5th Wave is absolutely it. Can't wait for the sequel.

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